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Man leaves South Carolina death row as firing squad trial starts

The state's death chamber in Columbia, S.C., includes the electric chair (right) and a firing squad chair (left).
South Carolina Dept. of Corrections via AP
FILE - The state's death chamber in Columbia, S.C., includes the electric chair (right) and a firing squad chair (left).

A South Carolina inmate who killed four people in two states is off death row after a federal appeals court ruled the judge who sentenced him to die nearly two decades ago did not consider his abusive childhood or mental illness.

The ruling last week means the number of prisoners on South Carolina's death row has been cut nearly in half since the start of 2011, when the state carried out its last execution.

Whether the state can begin putting inmates to death again may be determined this week at a trial in Columbia where lawyers for several death row prisoners are arguing the electric chair - as well as the newly established, but so far unused, firing squad - are cruel and unusual punishments.

Only three inmates in the U.S., all in Utah, have died by firing squad since 1977 and 19 have been electrocuted this century.

South Carolina has had lethal injection since the early 1990s, but the supply of the drugs used to kill inmates expired several years ago and pharmacies have refused to sell the state any additional drugs knowing what they would be used for.

The General Assembly passed a law in 2021 requiring condemned inmates to choose between electrocution or gunshot if the lethal injection drugs weren't available. Four prisoners either out or nearly out of appeals to their death sentences sued and their execution dates were postponed.

Whatever is decided at this week's trial will likely be appealed through the state and federal courts for years. The state Supreme Court asked Judge Jocelyn Newman to rule within 30 days of the end of the proceedings.

South Carolina's death row is down to 34 inmates after last week's ruling in Quincy Allen's case.

The state had 63 inmates awaiting execution at the start of 2011, the last year the state put someone to death. The inmates to leave death row have either died or had their sentences overturned and prosecutors have chosen not to seek the death penalty again.

Allen, 42, was sent to death row in 2005 for killing a woman he picked up on a Columbia street with three shotgun blasts and a man during an argument he was having with a pregnant women at the restaurant where he worked.

While Allen was on the run following those South Carolina killings, he shot and killed two people at a convenience store in Surry County, North Carolina. Allen pleaded guilty in that state and was sentenced to life.

In South Carolina, Allen pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and agreed to let state judge G. Thomas Cooper sentence him after Cooper met with defense attorneys to discuss his mental illness and childhood, according to the July 26 ruling by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Allen's earliest childhood memories were of his stepfather beating him and once pulling the trigger of an empty gun when it was pointed at Allen's eye, according to a social worker's testimony at his sentencing hearing.

Allen's mother once told him she "would have sold Allen if she could have made money off him." She beat her son, refused to feed him and marked food containers so she would know if they were opened, and started kicking him out of the house when he was in fourth grade. Allen remembers sleeping in bushes, a friend's treehouse, or on the McDonald's playground, the social worker said.

Allen either was sent or volunteered to go to a psychiatric hospital seven times in five years leading up to the killings when he was 22 years old. His mother was called when he was on the roof of the grocery store where he had just been fired threating to jump.

"When she arrived a couple of hours later, she laughed and walked away," Allen's medical records noted.

Yet Cooper sentenced Allen to death, saying he agreed with some prosecution experts who thought Allen was faking his psychiatric problems.

Two of the three federal appeals judges disagreed.

"The record in this case leaves us with grave doubt that excluding, ignoring, or overlooking Allen's serious mental illness and history of childhood abuse had no substantial and injurious effect or influence on the outcome of the sentencing proceeding," they wrote.