COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina lawmakers on Thursday advanced legislation to shield the identities of companies that sell lethal injection drugs – and, if the state somehow remains unable to buy the pharmaceuticals, to permit execution by electrocution.
Both proposals, which now move to the Senate floor for debate, are intended as remedies to the state’s ongoing troubles obtaining drugs needed to carry out lethal injection. South Carolina hasn’t put any inmates to death since 2011, due in part to a lack of the right drugs.
Drug companies, fearful of the stigma, have become hesitant to sell the drugs. So far, more than a dozen states have adopted so-called “shield laws” keeping the drug suppliers’ names secret, in the hopes that that protection will assuage their fears of retribution by members of the public who oppose the death penalty.
South Carolina’s primary execution method is lethal injection, and 36 inmates have been put to death that way since 1995. But the choice is officially up to inmates, who can choose electrocution. None have done that since 2008, when James Earl Reed was put to death for the 1996 murders of his ex-girlfriend’s parents.
One measure approved Thursday by a Senate panel would allow prison officials to electrocute inmates – even those who opted for lethal injection – if the state isn’t able to buy the drugs. The state’s current injection protocol requires three drugs: pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. The state’s supply of pentobarbital expired in 2013, and officials have said that continual efforts to buy more have failed.
“Right now, the department can’t buy the drugs,” said Sen. Shane Massey, who chaired a subcommittee considering the bill. “It still maintains those two methods. It still allows the inmate to have the selection.”
The second measure would officially add drug suppliers to the state’s execution team, shielding their identities from the public and exempting them from the procurement process. Last year, South Carolina was unable to carry out an execution because South Carolina couldn’t get the needed drugs. Corrections officials then called on lawmakers for a change in the law.
“This would be a better tool than we currently have,” Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told lawmakers Thursday. “Again, with no guarantees.”
Both proposals now move to the full Senate for debate. The panel also discussed a measure to criminalize the possession of cellphones at the state’s prisons, an effort intended to help combat the dangers officials say are created when inmates have access to the devices behind bars.
Committee members acknowledge the problems created by the contraband items, which officials are smuggled in each year by the thousands, but ultimately tabled a vote to allow further research and debate on the measure.
Attending the hearing was Capt. Robert Johnson, a former South Carolina prison officer nearly killed after a hit on his life that officials say was ordered by an inmate illegally using a cellphone behind bars. Johnson has become an advocate on the cellphone issue.