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Thread: Future of executions in SC remains uncertain

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    Future of executions in SC remains uncertain

    ...Marion Lindsey, 42, has been sitting on South Carolina’s death row for 12 years, and it’s possible he will never be executed.

    Like other prison systems across the country, the S.C. Department of Corrections can't purchase the drugs necessary to carry out lethal injections. The drugs are not available in the United States, and European countries — which are strongly opposed to the death penalty — have refused to sell the drugs to American prisons.

    That means executions in states that rely primarily on lethal injection are now in limbo for the foreseeable future. The long appeals process associated with death penalty cases increases the likelihood that any stockpiled remaining drugs will expire, and few states have acted to reinstate other forms of execution, such as the electric chair or firing squad. While death penalty opponents have welcomed the shift, some victims' families, such as Carol Wright, feel their loved ones have been cheated of justice.

    South Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2011, and in 2013 one of the drugs in the state's supply that's needed for a lethal injection expired. Since then, corrections officials haven't been able to obtain the three-drug cocktail used in executions.

    “We’ve tried to go everywhere we could go, and because the anti-death-penalty groups have been so good at stopping this, they won’t sell us the drugs,” said Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections. “Once we tell them we’re DOC, the conversation stops there.”

    Stirling said there are no scheduled executions at this time, but he said DOC officials still need to prepare as if one is going to take place.

    He testified before state House and Senate committees in hopes of getting a shield law passed that would have included drug companies as part of the state’s execution team, preventing anyone from learning the name of a company that sold lethal injection drugs to the DOC.

    Under South Carolina law, the identities of execution teams are protected. The proposed measure also would have shielded drug companies from litigation should anything go wrong during an execution.

    The shield law bill died during the General Assembly’s last session, said Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg. Reese said the bill didn’t get enough votes to make it out of subcommittee.

    “Something is going to have to be done,” Reese said. "We're going to have to do it the right way, but who decides the right way? I think if something isn’t done, the death penalty will just go away. I think there will be more life sentences because (death sentences) can’t be administered properly.”

    Some attempts have been made to change the state's method of execution. State Rep. Joshua A. Putnam, R-Anderson, introduced a bill in April 2015 that would've allowed South Carolina to use firing squads to carry out executions. And state Sens. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, proposed a bill that would allow the state to use the gas chamber.

    But both bills died in committee, never reaching the floor.

    Uncertain fate

    Seventh Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette said the state’s inability to procure lethal injections drugs won’t keep him from pursuing the death penalty when it's warranted.

    “It’s not going to change our evaluation system whatsoever,” Barnette said. “We’re going to keep doing evaluations for every case.”

    The decision to seek the death penalty isn't made lightly, he said.

    “Before we consider declaring the death penalty, we look through everything — the factors of each case,” Barnette said. “Looking at mine and (Trey Gowdy's) record, it’s some of the worst people we’ve ever dealt with.”

    The last death penalty case Barnette prosecuted was in 2014 against Ricky Blackwell Sr., who was convicted of killing 8-year-old Brooke Center in an act of revenge. Blackwell's ex-wife was dating Brooke’s father.

    Barnette talked extensively with the family, and they wanted to pursue the death penalty, he said. But that isn’t always the case.

    “Each case is different and the facts are different,” Barnette said. “The one thing we want to make sure of is that we are very deliberate in making sure we look at everything before we consider something like that.”

    Like some of the families he works with, Barnette is frustrated by the length of time between a death sentence and an execution. Families who want the death penalty pursued need to see justice, Barnette said.

    Long road

    One reason death sentences aren't carried out more frequently is they often involve lengthy appeals. Death penalty trials essentially require perfection from the judge, defense attorneys and the prosecutors, said U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former Seventh Circuit solicitor. Even the smallest mistake discovered during the appeals process can result in a new trial, he said.

    Gowdy said a capital murder trial also is exponentially more expensive than a standard murder trial. There are more lawyers, more legal filings and more pre-trial maneuverings with a capital murder trial, Gowdy said. When the trial does start, it often lasts longer than a regular murder trial, costing taxpayers millions.

    The appeals process alone can take decades. When he was solicitor, Gowdy said he told victims' families who wanted the death penalty that "most of us will not live long enough to see this sentence carried out." Gowdy said he had prosecuted seven or eight death penalty cases, and none of them are close to being carried out.

    Lindsey's case, for instance, is still in the state appellate process, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

    “It’s a really high standard, and it should be when the state is taking someone’s life, but it shouldn't be impossible,” Gowdy said.

    Over the course of about 20 years, Gowdy said, groups opposed to the death penalty have managed to make the process cost prohibitive and nearly impossible to carry out. Gowdy said he gives death penalty opponents credit for "playing long ball" in their efforts to end the death penalty.

    "At the end of that (trial), if the drug isn't available to carry out the jury's verdict, the anti-death penalty folks have another victory," Gowdy said.

    Waning support?

    Ron Kaz, board chairman of South Carolinians Abolishing the Death Penalty, said he’s been a death penalty opponent for 30 years, and he has seen a steady decline in support for executions. He believes that’s why alternative methods and shield law proposals are failing. People aren’t as interested in the topic as they once were, he said.

    When he first started going to executions, Kaz said there would be "big rowdy crowds" of people supporting the death penalty and smaller groups protesting it. In the recent executions he's attended, Kaz said no death penalty supporters were present.

    “Basically, it’s no longer the really hot button issue it used to be,” Kaz said. “I think a lot of people in government would like to see it fade away. I see the support diminishing, but this is another example of the leaders in the legislature not leading. They’re pushing for other alternatives.”

    Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the group is focused on educating the public on the problems with the death penalty, rather than the methods of execution.

    Rust-Tierney said the death penalty now is confined to a smaller number of jurisdictions, which suggests it may be nearing extinction.

    “I think that the future of executions is we’re not going to have any,” Rust-Tierney said. “From our perspective, the future is we’re going to finally come to grips with the fact this isn’t working.”

    The public needs to be concerned about states that are pushing for alternative methods of execution or lobbying for shield laws, Rust-Tierney said.

    “At the end of the day, the challenge with the death penalty is about government accountability,” Rust-Tierney said. “We’ve been trying to do this for 40 years, and it isn’t working.”

    But for victims' families, the issue is simply about seeing justice served. Wright is frustrated that Marion Lindsey has so many appeals left, and said she didn't realize the process would take so long. She said it makes her angry that even if his appeals ended tomorrow, he would still sit on death row because the lethal injection drugs aren't available.

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    The intellectual battle for liberty can appear to be a lonely one at times. However, the numbers are not as important as the principles that we hold. Leonard Read always taught that "it's not a numbers game, but an ideological game." That's why it's important to continue to provide a principled philosophy as to what the role of government ought to be, despite the numbers that stare us in the face.
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    "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

    -H. L. Mencken

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