One day shy of the tenth anniversary of the state’s last execution, the South Carolina legislature, frustrated by the state’s inability to obtain execution drugs, approved a bill that would authorize putting prisoners to death in the electric chair or by firing squad.

On May 5, 2021, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted 66-43 to approve Senate Bill 200, bringing the bill closer to final passage. The State Senate passed an earlier version of the bill on March 2 by a vote of 32-11. The bill now returns to the Senate for ratification of the House amendments before it can be sent to Gov. Henry McMaster to be signed into law.

The legislature’s action comes nearly ten years to the day after South Carolina carried out its last execution on May 6, 2011. The state is the 13th that currently authorizes capital punishment but has not executed anyone for more than a decade. Thirty-six U.S. states — nearly three-quarters (72%) of the nation — have now either abolished the death penalty or had no executions in at least ten years.

South Carolina law provides for execution by lethal injection, but the state’s supply of execution drugs expired in 2013. Since then, U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers have refused to sell their medicines to states for use in executions and South Carolina corrections officials have been unable to procure a new supply. Falsely attributing the companies’ refusals to intimidation and threats by anti-death-penalty activists, Gov. Henry McMaster has lobbied the legislature to authorize using the electric chair if lethal-injection drugs are unavailable. Legislators amended the bill to add the firing squad as a second alternative execution method.

In November 2020, South Carolina issued a death warrant for Richard Moore, setting an execution date of December 4, 2020. Corrections officials provided no information to Moore about how the state intended to perform the execution. His lawyers asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to stay the execution, writing, “Never before has [the South Carolina Department of Corrections] denied a condemned inmate and his counsel access to the execution protocols in advance of an imminent execution. Indeed, no other state in the country has executed someone under such an extreme veil of secrecy.” The South Carolina Supreme Court stayed the execution, stating that it had “been advised the South Carolina Department of Corrections does not have, and will not be able to obtain, the drugs required for execution by lethal injection.” It directed that the stay remain in effect “until the South Carolina Department of Corrections advises the Court it has the ability to perform the execution as required by the law.”

SB 200 would make electrocution the default method of execution, and allow prisoners to elect execution by lethal injection, if available, or firing squad. Gov. Henry McMaster has said he supports it. A 2015 national poll by YouGov found that most Americans oppose execution methods other than lethal injection. Just one-third of respondents said the electric chair and the firing squad were not cruel and unusual.

Legislators from both parties criticized the bill, pointing to the risk of executing innocent people. Representative Neal Collins (R – Pickens), raised concerns about wrongful convictions. “We have been wrong at least three times and probably seven times within my lifetime,” Collins said. “The system is not perfect and it’s arbitrary.” Senator Kevin L. Johnson (D – Clarendon) invoked the execution of George Stinney, Jr., a Black 14-year-old boy who was convicted by an all-white jury of killing two white girls. Stinney, who wept as white prison guards strapped him into the electric chair and placed the electrocution helmet on his head and a bit in his mouth, was the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. His conviction was posthumously vacated in 2014, 70 years after his execution. His case came to symbolize the racist misapplication of capital punishment in the U.S.

Frank Knack, Executive Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, sharply criticized the legislature’s attempt to “reform” the death penalty by making it easier for the state to execute prisoners. “We watched the debate around the electric chair bill yesterday and it seemed like it was taking place in some alternative universe where we have a justice system that is fair,” Knack said. “This lofty imposed punishment is based in a system that is racist, arbitrary and error-prone.”

“South Carolina’s capital punishment evolved from lynchings and racial terror, and it has failed to separate its modern capital punishment system from this racist history,” the ACLU of South Carolina said in a statement. “The death penalty is modern-day lynching.”

A DPIC analysis of executions in South Carolina in the 20th century found stark racial disparities. Of the 302 people executed in the last century, 237 (78%) were Black. Of the 41 people executed for rape, 36 (88%) were Black. All 25 people executed for attempted rape were Black men.