electric chair

The former death row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Dorchester County, near Ridgeville. 

South Carolina lawmakers have a decision to make: Is the electric chair an appropriate method of execution, or is it antiquated and barbaric?

A bill discussed last Tuesday by state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, would allow the state to electrocute death row inmates if lethal injection drugs remain unavailable, even if the inmate chooses lethal injection.

But the chair remains controversial as an instrument of death.

Plagued by gruesome, botched executions since its inception in the late 1800s, critics say it should be abandoned as cruel and unusual.

Law enforcement officials, in the meantime, say that as long as the death penalty remains on the books in South Carolina, they need a way to carry out the sentence.

“Proponents of electrocution … argued that it was quicker, safer and more humane than hanging or the firing squad,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit that educates on issues related to capital punishment.

On Aug. 6, 1890, Robert Kemmler, a convicted murderer, became the first person in the U.S. to be executed by the chair, according to Dunham and information on the nonprofit’s website.

It didn’t go well.

The Death Penalty Information Center breaks down Kemmler’s execution as follows:

According to the Buffalo News, Kemmler – who was intellectually disabled – asked correctional officers: “Don’t let them experiment on me more than they ought to.”

After an initial 17-second administration of high-voltage electric current, a doctor declared Kemmler dead. Then Kemmler let out a deep groan and witnesses reportedly screamed “Turn on the current!”

Reports of the execution say that “After 2 minutes the execution chamber filled with the smell of burning flesh. Two witnesses fainted. Several others were overcome with severe attacks of nausea.” Newspapers called the execution a “historic bungle” and “disgusting, sickening and inhuman.”

While the organization does not take a stance for or against the death penalty itself, Dunham said he believes legislators have a duty to be honest about the brutality of methods like the electric chair.

“We don’t want people tortured to death,” he said. “For the most part, history has spoken on the electric chair. (States) are not capable of carrying out executions on the electric chair without gruesome errors.”

Of the 158 executions by electric chair since 1973, 10 were botched, according to the nonprofit’s website.

Law enforcement officials, including S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, say that while the death penalty remains on the books, he has an obligation to carry out the sentence.

But a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs has effectively put a stop to that method.

“If we do have a notice for death, we cannot carry it out,” Stirling said. “This is something we have to take very seriously.”

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said he fully supports Timmons’ bill.

“The death penalty has already been upheld as constitutional in South Carolina,” Wilson said. “This bill would just allow the state to carry out the jury’s unanimous verdict.”

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he believes it’s perfectly reasonable for the Legislature to consider a bill offering an alternative to lethal injection, given the nationwide drug shortage, but he said lawmakers should be receptive to any concerns brought by their constituents.

“The General Assembly is a representative government,” Cannon said. “They should be responsive to the public. I certainly believe that there is a place for the death penalty. There are crimes that are so heinous that (it) is appropriate.”

Nicknamed “Old Sparky,” South Carolina’s electric chair was first used in 1912 to execute William Reed, a black man from Anderson County, according to a News and Courier article published on Aug. 4, 1912.

Reed confessed to “attempted assault on a white woman,” according to the article, which touted the chair as quick, civilized and humane with its 1,950 volts of electricity, “sufficient to cause instant death.”

The electric chair remained the only method of execution in South Carolina until June 8, 1995, when lethal injection was introduced. After that point, an inmate could choose between injection or the chair.

On June 20, 2008, James Earl Reed became the most recent inmate to be executed by the electric chair in South Carolina. None have chosen the chair since.

For the time being, it appears lawmakers have some time to make their decision. None of the 35 inmates on death row are currently scheduled for execution, according to Jeffrey Taillon, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

A state Senate subcommittee is scheduled to discuss the bill on Wednesday, and the full Corrections and Penology Committee will meet the following day, depending on what the subcommittee decides.

For some, like attorney Diana Holt who was called in to file a last-minute appeal before James Reed’s execution, there’s a simpler solution than debates over execution methods.

“They should just get rid of it,” Holt said. “The death penalty exponentially inflates the cost of these proceedings and victims’ families get dragged through the (appeals) process. Juries aren’t sentencing people to death anymore.”