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Attorneys for two prisoners facing death by electrocution under South Carolina’s new capital punishment law are asking a federal judge to block their executions scheduled later this month, describing the electric chair as a particularly cruel and mutilating method of killing.
Executing Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens by electrocution later this month would cause the men “to suffocate to death while they are cooked by the current,” attorney Gerald King argued Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Bryan Harwell.
The executions were scheduled less than a month after the passage of a new law compelling the condemned to choose between electrocution or a firing squad if lethal injection drugs aren’t available. The statute is aimed at restarting executions in the state after an involuntary 10-year pause that officials attribute to an inability to procure the drugs.
The South Carolina Supreme Court set Sigmon’s execution for June 18 after prison officials indicated the state’s electric chair is ready for use. He's been on death row since his 2002 conviction in a double murder. Owens, who has been on and off death row since 1999 for the killing of a convenience store clerk, is slated to die a week later, on June 25.
Prison officials have indicated they still can’t get ahold of lethal injection drugs and have yet to put together a firing squad, meaning Sigmon and Owens would die in the state’s 109-year-old electric chair.
The prisoners' attorneys argued in court filings that dying by electrocution subjects the men “to a substantial risk of excruciating pain, terror, and certain bodily mutilation that contravenes evolving standards of decency, offends basic principles of human dignity, and violates ... the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
South Carolina authorities also haven't exhausted all methods to secure the lethal injection drugs, the attorneys said, pointing to recent executions in other states and by federal prison officials.
Attorneys for Gov. Henry McMaster and the South Carolina Department of Corrections responded Wednesday that prisons officials have tried in good faith to obtain the drugs after the legislature failed to pass a shield law obscuring the identities of drug manufacturers. They said the corrections agency has received multiple refusal letters from drug companies and failed at buying the drugs from federal prison officials. Compounding pharmacies won't do it either, because state law requires a doctor's prescription.
“I'm not aware of any doctor who, without violating the Hippocratic Oath, would write a prescription for this,” said Daniel Plyler, representing the state.
In court papers, attorneys for McMaster and the Corrections Department wrote that Sigmon’s other attempts to stop his execution had already been denied in several courts. They argued that his “latest lawsuit is no reason to stop Sigmon’s scheduled execution” and is duplicative of his state circuit court lawsuit.
The state's attorneys also said that the U.S. Supreme Court has said courts should avoid questions of science behind which punishments are more painful than others, as a growing body of evidence suggests some of the drugs administered during lethal injections could inflict torturous pain while a paralyzing agent conceals suffering.
The federal court hearing comes a day after a state judge declined to halt the executions while a separate lawsuit over the revised capital punishment statute is pending. In that case, attorneys for the inmates argue they can't be shot or electrocuted because they were sentenced under the old law that made lethal injection the default method.
The judge gave little indication Wednesday how or when he would rule. “I understand the gravity of the matter,” Harwell said.
Sigmon and Owens are each seeking reprieves from the South Carolina Supreme Court as well.
Both men exhausted their traditional appeals in recent months, leading the state Supreme Court to set and then stay their executions earlier this year, before the passage of the law, after the corrections agency acknowledged it couldn't obtain the needed lethal injection drugs.
Meg Kinnard in Columbia contributed to this report.
Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.