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Fight over firing squad could stretch through summer

firing squad and electric chair inside South Carolina's death chamber
SC Department of Corrections
Associated Press
This photo provided by the South Carolina Dept. of Corrections shows the state’s death chamber in Columbia, S.C., including the electric chair, right, and a firing squad chair, left. The agency renovated its capital punishment facility to include a metal chair with restraints facing a wall with a rectangular opening several feet away after South Carolina lawmakers added the firing squad to the state’s execution methods in 2021. ( South Carolina Dept. of Corrections via AP)

In the state’s death chambers in Columbia, a metal chair sits ready to strap in the condemned. A hood will be placed over their head, an aim point over their heart. Then, three volunteers with rifles will open fire from behind a cutout in the brick wall ahead.

“That blows my mind how hard they are trying to put my father down,” says Alexandria Moore. Her father, Richard Moore, became the first person set to die by firing squad in South Carolina last month.

The Supreme Court stepped in, granting stays for Moore and death row inmate, Brad Sigmon, who also had a date with death. Now the court has given Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman in Richland County 90 days to hear a civil lawsuit and another 30 days to rule.

The Lawsuit

The lawsuit filed by Moore, Sigmon and two other death row inmates claims the new firing squad and the century-old electric chair violate the state’s ban on cruel, corporal and unusual punishment. Their attorneys emphasize “corporal punishment” which they say is unique to South Carolina’s constitution and means “meant to inflict physical pain.”

But the state argues lethal injection is no longer an option because it can’t get the drugs needed. So, lawmakers added that rare firing squad last year, which was just unveiled in March.

Only three people in the United States have been put to death by one since 1976. The last was Ronne Lee Gardner of Utah. His brother Randy spoke about it during a rally in Columbia.

“They just blew his whole back out,” said Gardner. “Why would you volunteer for stuff like that?”

“It’s never been used before in South Carolina so, we have no experience with this method,” says Moore’s attorney Lindsey Vann.

Vann, the executive director of Justice 360, wants Moore to have the same option he had when he was sentenced, lethal injection. She also questions why the state can’t get the drugs when other states still carry out executions that way.

Richard Moore's Case

In a separate petition, Vann also questioned why Moore, a Black man, was convicted of murdering a white clerk by a jury with no Black members, and then sentenced to death for a crime she says does not deserve the ultimate penalty.

“He did not walk into that store with the intention or really the understanding that a murder would happen inside,” says Vann.

Moore was unarmed when he walked into a Spartanburg convenience store in 1999 and wrestled a gun away from the clerk who then pulled out another. The two exchanged shots. The white clerk was killed while Moore fled injured with a bag of money.

Debra Gammons, a professor of constitutional and criminal law at the Charleston School of Law, says legally premeditation in a murder charge doesn’t require the killing was planned.

“Once you’re there and you see someone and you decide to kill, that’s enough to show malice of forethought,” says Gammons. “It can happen in a second. It can happen right before the death occurs.”

The South Carolina Supreme court upheld Moore’s death sentence in April. Four justices said Moore qualified because he took a life in what became an armed robbery. But Associate Justice Kaye Hearn strongly dissented, calling the sentence in terms of race, “a relic of a bygone era” and Moore’s crime not the “worst of the worst” for which the death penalty is intended.

So how is it Moore got the same sentence as the racist gunman who killed nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015? His attorneys will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

"I could not, even for Dylann Roof, condone his death penalty sentence."
Reverend Sharon Risher, lost her mother Ethel Lance to a racist gunman at Mother Emanuel AME Church

The Death Penalty Debate

Rallies against the death penalty have intensified across South Carolina with the state’s unveiling of a new firing squad and two scheduled executions. Many question the morality, including Reverend Sharon Risher who lost her mother, Ethel Lance, to that Charleston Church massacre.

“I could not, even for Dylann Roof, condone his death penalty sentence,” said Reverend Risher during a rally in Greenville.

Two dozen states have turned away from the death penalty, several since drugs for lethal injection became harder to come by with companies not wanting to be associated with executions.

But it is still legal in South Carolina as Governor Henry McMaster reminded people last year when the firing squad was added. He said the death penalty is meant to punish, deter, and provide justice for the families of murder victims.

“I have as attorney general participated in the process and have seen families have relief,” said Governor McMaster.

But for Alexandria Moore, the judicial process is stressful as she anxiously awaits word from the courts.

“It’s a confusing time for my emotions. I can say for my family, it’s hard.”

The death penalty could cost Alexandria and her 3-year-old daughter someone they love.