South Carolina offers two modes of execution to the condemned: electric chair (on the right) or firing squad (chair on the left).
Dick Harpootlian escaped from the South Carolina General Assembly on April 20 to tell me why those on death row should be allowed to die by firing squad. “My experience in this area probably exceeds that of most people,” he said, noting the death penalty cases he handled during his tenure as prosecutor, on and off, between 1975 and 1995. His most famous was that of Donald “Pee Wee”. Gaskins, who had already been convicted of murdering nine people when Harpootlian charged him with a tenth murder in 1983. Gaskins was sent to the electric chair in 1991. Harpootlian chose not to watch him die – “He there are a lot of prosecutors who like the idea of executing someone,” he told me. “I’m not one of them” — but the stories still haunt him. “His blood boiled, his hair almost caught fire, his eyes…I think they exploded in his head,” Harpootlian recalled. “And it wasn’t that fast. They had to give him two shakes.
It’s probably no wonder Richard B. Moore, a South Carolina death row inmate, chose an alternative. Until the South Carolina Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of execution scheduled for April 29, three state Department of Corrections officers had planned to tie Moore to a chair, place a balaclava over his head and shoot him. the heart. That Moore, who killed a store clerk more than two decades ago while fighting for control of the employee’s gun during a robbery, chose to die this way is at both an impeachment of his options and testimony from Harpootlian. Bringing death back by gunfire for the state’s first execution since 2011 was a shocking idea when the 73-year-old attorney and current Democratic state senator first pleaded for it in March 2021. He described it at the time as a “desperate move to minimize the pain and suffering of convicts.
The state senator ‘abhors’ the death penalty except in ‘extreme cases’, he told me, and he still considers Gaskins a ‘poster child’ as to why the penalty capital in its place. “The only time we can let our guard down on Pee Wee is when he’s in hell,” Harpootlian joked less than a week before the execution. But, he explained to me, “if it had to be done in some cases, I thought getting shot was a much quicker and much less cruel way to do it.”
South Carolina has joined the growing ranks of states that have struggled to get the drugs needed to kill people by lethal injection. Pharmaceutical cocktails were once seen as the humane option to methods such as hanging and the gas chamber, but a mix of lawyer-driven pressure and botched killings has made drug companies nervous. (In 2014, an Oklahoma man named Clayton Lockett began convulsing and talking after being pronounced unconscious on the execution table.) Some companies have imposed severe restrictions on the purchase of necessary drugs, while others have taken them off the market altogether. Last spring, when South Carolina’s depleted supplies prompted lawmakers to propose a new law that would have made the electric chair the default option for death row inmates, Harpootlian insisted, along with a fellow Republican, to let them have the choice of dying while shooting team too.
“There’s no right way to kill someone,” he explained to me, but at least the firing squad was usually “instantaneous.” It’s an option in Utah, a fact Harpootlian cited as evidence of his preference, even though Moore, the convict, argues that South Carolina “is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution.”
To support the death penalty in any form whatsoever is to rationalize the taste for cruelty. It’s notoriously error-prone, applied with racial bias, and doesn’t deter bad behavior. He has less public approval today nationally than at any time since 1972, and if the testimony of shaken witnesses is any indication, the slim majority who still support him might reconsider whether more supporters were actually witnessing this. what it involved. South Carolina’s decision caused such an outcry and garnered national media coverage in part because it banished the medicalized abstraction that made some executions more palatable. It forced people to conjure up mental images of a superficial killing method most associated with death squads and enhanced them with real ones: On April 15, the Department of Corrections shared a photo of his death of $53,600 room at Columbia, filled with two austere chairs (one for being electrocuted, the other for being shot).
There are ways the South Carolina situation is emblematic of the bitter promise of 2020, when there seemed to be broad agreement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd that this country’s criminal justice system was too punitive. Support grew across the United States for a series of reforms, and favor for the police fell to dramatically low levels. Congress was about to take some positive, albeit modest, bipartisan steps. But it didn’t take long for people to change their minds. Support institutions closed or collapsed in response to the COVID pandemic, and their absence began to show: sick, jobless, aimless and angry people had fewer places to go to get support. ‘aid. Each time these people injured themselves or others, it appeared to their neighbors as terror and to governments as spikes in their crime-tracking spreadsheets – both bad for politics.
And once the problem was reframed as a criminal problem, the solutions became more brutal and cowardly. The once sympathetic Republicans left the negotiating table and returned to being cynical antagonists. Democrats rushed to the right out of fear. The Trump administration, which had announced it would restart federal executions in 2019 for the first time in 17 years, embarked on a furious killing spree as the president’s term ended.
What we see appears to be a course correction – less a dreadful backlash at a breakthrough moment than a smoothing of the waters after a ripple. “No, no, no, no,” Harpootlian replied when I asked him if he could imagine the popularity of the death penalty dropping enough in South Carolina to trigger its demise. The impulses he faces there, as Moore and other death row inmates await their fate, are among the darkest in humanity. “They don’t want it to be fast,” Harpootlian said of some of his colleagues in the legislature and their views on electrocution. “They don’t want it to be painless.”
That a hail of bullets is a comforting alternative to a 2,000 volt electric shock or a jaw-dropping pharmaceutical cocktail is already obvious. “There are a number of people who volunteer to be the sniper,” Harpootlian told me before rushing to the General Assembly. “The fact that they want to see someone die or that they want to legally participate in the murder of someone, that should be of great concern in our society.”