Anti-Death Penalty Group Protests South Carolina Executions
As South Carolina nears its first execution in a decade, death penalty opponents are renewing calls for the state to toss out its capital punishment statute.
A group of faith leaders, academics, organizers and others delivered a letter Wednesday to Gov. Henry McMaster and the state General Assembly calling for a halt to two upcoming executions and the repeal of the state's death penalty law.
Group members acknowledge it's unlikely for the politicians who ushered in a new law aimed at restarting executions after an involuntary 10-year pause will now turn around and repeal that law. Their group, South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was formed in light of two upcoming executions this month.
"We don't expect that we're going to stop an execution," said Abraham Bonowitz, director of Death Penalty Action, a national anti-death penalty group that helps local organizations oppose capital punishment. "What we do expect is that we're going to create the organization that's going to abolish the death penalty in this state. It might take two years, it might take 10 years, but that's what this organization is designed to do."
State prisons officials are planning on Friday to electrocute Brad Sigmon, a 63-year-old inmate who has spent nearly two decades on death row after he was convicted in 2002 of killing his ex-girlfriend's parents with a baseball bat.
The state Supreme Court also scheduled the June 25 execution of Freddie Owens, a 43-year-old who has been on and off death row since 1999 for the slaying of a convenience store clerk. The execution dates were ordered after state lawmakers passed legislation retooling the state's capital punishment statute to force inmates to choose between the electric chair or a firing squad when lethal injection isn't an option.
Sigmon and Owens are fighting the execution plans through last-minute legal filings.
Prison officials have said they can't obtain 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.
South Carolina's last execution took place in 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired two years later. There are 37 prisoners awaiting death in South Carolina, all of them men.
The state's new anti-capital punishment group noted that Wednesday marked the anniversary of the electrocution of 14-year-old George Stinney, the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. He was 14 when he was sent to South Carolina's electric chair after a one-day trial in 1944 in connection with the killings of two white girls. A judge threw out the Black teenager's conviction in 2014.
"There's a litany of problems with the death chamber," said Ron Kaz of Amnesty International USA. "It's racist, it's classist, it's arbitrary and capricious. It's expensive and brutalizes society."
The group pointed to the waning appeal of death sentences across the United States. Some 23 states no longer have the death penalty, with Virginia being the most recent — and first Southern state — to abolish capital punishment.
But South Carolina is now at a crossroads, said Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action. He noted that states such as Arizona and Alabama are veering in the other direction by trying to use gas chambers to carry out executions.
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.