Executions on hold again in South Carolina pending Supreme Court February hearing

Executions of condemned killers are apparently on hold again in South Carolina, at least until a state Supreme Court hearing in February.

The Supreme Court issued an order on Tuesday setting Feb. 6 as the date for oral arguments “to revisit the underlying issues in this matter.” The order was signed by all five justices.

Although the high court did not spell out what it meant by “underlying issues,” it likely referred to whether the electric chair and the firing squad are constitutional methods of execution.

At the February hearing, attorneys for inmates and attorneys for the state will also address aspects of the Shield Law, a measure passed earlier this year by the General Assembly. That law cleared the way for the S.C. Department of Corrections to keep secret a host of matters relating to executions, including details about the department’s procurement of deadly drugs for lethal injection executions.

By September, the drugs were obtained, and the Department of Corrections and Gov. Henry McMaster informed the Supreme Court that the department was now ready to carry out executions by lethal injection.

“Justice has been delayed for too long in South Carolina,” McMaster said in a news release. “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.”

But instead of giving the go-ahead to begin executions by lethal injection, the Supreme Court has made clear it wants to hear arguments on a range of capital punishment topics in February.

South Carolina has not executed anyone since 2011. Since then, inmates have been able to delay executions because the law said they could choose between lethal injection and the electric chair. Inmates, knowing the state could not obtain drugs for lethal injections, chose that unavailable method and thus were able to delay their executions indefinitely.

In 2021, the General Assembly passed a law allowing an inmate to choose firing squad as an alternate execution method. In spring 2022, the department announced it was ready to carry out an execution by firing squad.

In September 2022, after a non-jury trial in lawsuits brought by four condemned men, state Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled both the electric chair and the firing squad were unconstitutional.

Her ruling barred the state from carrying out executions by either method. The state appealed, and it is Newman’s decision in those cases that is in play at the February hearing.

The four inmates whose fate is in the Supreme Court’s hands are Freddie Owens, Brad Sigmon, Gary Terry and Richard Bernard Moore. They are basically at the end of a lengthy appeal process.

Owens was convicted of shooting to death a convenience store clerk on Halloween night in 1997, and Sigmon was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat in 2001, according to Supreme Court opinions. Both were Greenville County cases.

Terry was convicted of murder, first-degree burglary and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in the beating death of a woman in Lexington County in 1994, according to a Supreme Court opinion. Moore was sentenced to death for the 1999 shooting death of a Spartanburg County convenience store clerk during a strong armed robbery gone wrong, according to evidence in the case.

In a motion filed Sept. 29 with the Supreme Court, attorneys for the condemned inmates argued that due to the secrecy surrounding the newly-enacted Shield Law, there is no way to know that execution by lethal injection will be “carried out in a reliable and effective way, using drugs that are properly manufactured by a reputable source.“

On Oct. 2, lawyers for the state replied in a motion with the Supreme Court, arguing that lethal injection is constitutionally acceptable and it is time to stop the back-and-forth legal arguments.

“There is no need for the Court to opine on the constitutionality of electrocution or the firing squad in this case, “ the lawyers wrote, saying that the lethal injection procedure is ready to be implemented.

“The evolving, never-ending claims that mark capital litigation have turned the entire field into a ‘Groundhog Day’ that must end,” the state lawyers argued. “The public interest is furthered by carrying out death sentences without further delays.”

There are 34 inmates currently on South Carolina’s death row, according to the Department of Corrections.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.