South Carolina Gets Its Hands on Death Penalty Drug

State has obtained pentobarbital to carry out lethal injections, will resume executions after 12 years
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 20, 2023 7:35 AM CDT
12 Years Later, South Carolina to Restart Executions
This photo shows South Carolina's death chamber in Columbia, South Carolina, including the electric chair, right, and a firing squad chair, left.   (South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP, File)

South Carolina has obtained a drug needed to carry out lethal injections and is ready to perform the state's first execution in over 12 years, officials announced Tuesday. South Carolina used to be one of the most prolific states in the nation when it came to putting inmates to death. But it has had an unintended moratorium on the death penalty ever since its lethal injection drugs passed their expiration date and pharmacies refused to sell the state more because they could be publicly identified. The South Carolina General Assembly passed a shield law in May allowing the state to keep secret the procedure for executions and the suppliers of drugs or other items used, per the AP.

On Tuesday, state Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling revealed he bought a supply of pentobarbital and that the state would begin using the sedative as the only drug in its executions. The state had previously used a three-drug combination. "Justice has been delayed for too long in South Carolina," Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement. "This filing brings our state one step closer to being able to once again carry out the rule of law and bring grieving families and loved ones the closure they are rightfully owed." It's unknown when executions will restart. Four condemned inmates who've either run out or are nearly out of appeals sued the state after South Carolina added a firing squad to lethal injection and the electric chair.

State lawyers are asking for that suit to be tossed now that lethal injection drugs are available. Lawyers for the inmates didn't immediately respond to the announcement, but some sort of additional legal challenge appears likely. Current South Carolina law requires the state to execute inmates in the electric chair unless they choose lethal injection or the firing squad. The inmates have said that dying by bullets to the heart or an electric shock that stops the heart is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the US Constitution. In a sworn statement, Stirling said he and his employees have made more than 1,300 contacts to buy or obtain lethal injection drugs since the last set of drugs expired in 2013, and that only with the shield law was he able to find a supplier.

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South Carolina doesn't have to reveal its protocols for lethal injection under the shield law, but Stirling said it's essentially identical to how the federal government and several other states use pentobarbital alone to kill inmates. Arizona, Idaho, Georgia, Missouri, South Dakota, and Texas also have reported using the sedative in their executions. For years, states have struggled to secure pentobarbital for executions and have often been forced to look in unusual places for possible suppliers. Tennessee raised eyebrows last year when it was revealed in a sweeping report that corrections staffers in 2017 mulled buying the drug from a veterinarian before deciding not to. Staffers also considered importing the barbiturate internationally, but ultimately that plan was scuttled over logistical concerns. South Carolina has 34 inmates on death row. The state last killed someone on death row in May 2011.

(More South Carolina stories.)

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