The South Carolina Supreme Court won’t allow Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens to be executed in the state’s 109-year-old electric chair until the Department of Corrections assembles a firing squad or offers lethal injections.
In a three-page unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the death row inmates’ argument that they have the constitutional right to select their mode of execution.
Until Sigmon and Owens have the firing squad option state lawmakers authorized this year or can choose lethal injection – the DOC has been unable to obtain necessary chemicals for more than a decade – South Carolina cannot proceed with the planned executions, the Supreme Court determined Wednesday.
Sigmon, 63, on death row since 2002, was set to die Friday. Owens, 43, who was issued the death penalty in 1999, was scheduled for execution June 25. South Carolina has not executed a death row inmate since 2011.
A state circuit court and federal district court rejected petitions to stop the executions, but in its ruling, the Supreme Court said they should be delayed.
Justices cited DOC Director Bryan Stirling’s confirmation that "lethal injection is unavailable due to circumstances outside of the control of" his agency and firing squad policies and procedures have not yet been formulated.
"Under these circumstances,” the ruling reads, “in which electrocution is the only method of execution available, and due to the statutory right of inmates to elect the manner of their execution, we vacate the execution notice.”
The DOC said it is researching how other states operate firing squads for executions but offered no timeline for when it will be able to assemble the volunteer unit.
"The department is moving ahead with creating policies and procedures for a firing squad," DOC’s Chrysti Shain said in an emailed statement Wednesday. "We are looking to other states for guidance through this process. We will notify the court when a firing squad becomes an option for executions."
South Carolina is one of eight states to still use the electric chair and four to allow a firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Sigmon and Owens are among 37 inmates – all men – on the state’s death row.
Under previous South Carolina law, death row inmates could choose between lethal injection or the electric chair as their way of execution, and the state could not force the condemned to die by electrocution if the deadly chemical cocktail was unavailable.
During their recently concluded legislative session, South Carolina lawmakers adopted Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Little River. It removes that provision and allows the state to proceed with executions of death row inmates who selected lethal injection even if the shots cannot be administered.
SB 200 also restores firing squads as mode of execution inmates can select, It was signed into law May 11 by Gov. Henry McMaster.
Shortly after, Sigmon and Owens received updated dates to be electrocuted to death in South Carolina’s 109-year-old electric chair because the new law makes it the “default” method if lethal injection and firing squad are not available.
Lawyers representing Sigmon and Owens filed a lawsuit challenging SB 200, arguing the new law is unconstitutional because their clients were sentenced under an older statute that made lethal injection the default execution method.
DOC lawyers countered that death row inmates do not have a right to choose how the state will execute them. South Carolina has the right, and the responsibility, to carry out the executions with whatever methods are available, they argued.