COLUMBIA, S.C. - The South Carolina House voted Wednesday to add a firing squad to the state's execution methods amid a lack of lethal-injection drugs -- a measure meant to jump-start executions in a state that once had one of the busiest death chambers in the nation.
The bill, approved by a 66-43 vote, will require condemned inmates to choose either being shot or electrocuted if lethal injection drugs aren't available. The state is one of only nine to still use the electric chair and will become only the fourth to allow a firing squad.
And then this:
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A South Carolina judge should block the executions of two men scheduled to die later this month so the court can evaluate a new law that effectively forces death row prisoners to choose to die by either electric chair or firing squad, prisoners’ attorneys argued Monday.
Unfortunately, the South Carolina Judge ruled that choosing between the electric chair or firing squad for execution didn’t violate the State Constitution. It does however clearly appear to violate the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”
I tried. I ran as a Democrat for SC State House Seat 20, but lost. South Carolina is a red state. Yet it seems the almost exclusively Republican SC State Legislature and Governor Henry McMaster (Henry McMoron?) have completely lost their collective minds.
Yet over fifty years ago, while still in Junior High, I participated in a spirited class debate over capital punishment. I did my homework, knew my arguments and passionately advocated the necessity of capital punishment. After the debate I asked a classmate if our side (meaning me) won the debate. Her reply irritated me. She said nothing I said could convince her that killing anyone was right.
A few years later in high school I participated in another debate about capital punishment. This time I was on the opposite side arguing capital punishment was wrong. Likewise this time I also knew my arguments and passionately made my case.
Psychologists know the more times we hear something, the more likely we will believe it. Likewise, the more times we say something is true, the more convinced we are we are correct. So how was I able to switch from one conclusion I advocated to another?
The answer is contained within my own name, Stephen Dreyfus. When I asked my parents if I was related to anyone famous they told me I was related to Alfred Dreyfus, who was my great-grandfather’s cousin. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason by the French Army and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. The army had a flimsy case Dreyfus was actually the German spy in their midst, but figured since Dreyfus was Jewish, he was easily expendable.
I read everything I could about the Dreyfus Affair including Five Years of My Life by Alfred Dreyfus, which tells the tortures he endured imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Devil’s Island was where the French sent the worst criminals to die. They didn’t need the guillotine. Disease and the tropical climate usually made life expectancy there very short.
Fortunately, the Army’s cover-up was exposed; France discovered Dreyfus was innocent and Dreyfus was returned to France as a free man—looking twenty years older than when he left.
What does this have to do with capital punishment? Everything! Dreyfus was accused and convicted of treason. Had France still had the death penalty, Dreyfus would have been executed by the state. Perhaps someday his name (and thus mine) would be cleared, but he would have been executed for a crime he was completely innocent of.
There are many good arguments both for and against the death penalty. For the record, the death penalty doesn’t deter crime. Certainty of getting caught does. My favorite example comes from England where pick-pockets were summarily hung where the gathered crowd could witness the executions. Yet professional pick pockets had a field day picking pockets while the crowd was mesmerized by the hangings. Although they would pay with their lives if caught, they had little fear of that happening.
Entire books have been written demonstrating the death penalty is unfairly racist against black prisoners.
Yet it seems the best way to cut to the chase is to examine side-by-side the two best arguments for and against capital punishment.
- Best argument for capital punishment: If the state executes someone for a heinous crime, that person will never commit that crime again.
- Best argument against capital punishment: If the state executes someone for a heinous crime, sooner or later, someone innocent who never committed the crime will be executed.
Comparing these two arguments, it is evident that it is far easier to build prisons one can’t escape from, than to provide a fair system of justice that will not convict an innocent person. The deciding factor for me, was my own historical cousin. Dreyfus was innocent but found guilty. How many times have innocent people in this country been executed by the state? It is far easier to build prisons than to provide justice.
Of course, the above are logical arguments. But reason and logic rarely prevails when it is much easier to react to such issues with non-rational emotions. Consider Michael Dukakis’ reply to the question asked by Bernard Shaw in the 1988 Presidential debate:
“Governor, If Kitty Dukakis was raped and murdered would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
"No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime."
Wrong answer! Sure it was logically correct, but many experts say this non-emotional response cost Dukakis the election. Here is what I think Dukakis should have said…
If my wife or daughter got raped and killed I would want the despicable criminal hanged from the highest tree! I’d want him dead, and the sooner the better! I know capital punishment isn’t the answer to violent crime, but if it happened to my family, I know I would feel differently and want to avenge the killing.
Since 1988, capital punishment has been more and more considered cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, DNA testing clearly demonstrated that many sent to prison for “capital offenses” that were worthy of execution, were actually innocent. Delayed justice couldn’t make up for the years wrongly imprisoned, but at least the prisoners were alive to be set free.
So while the rest of the country, and indeed the world, is going forward and recognizing the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, South Carolina is sadly going backwards, advocating electrocution and firing squads.
Why stop there? Why not regress to the options of hangings, death by drowning, guillotines, burning at the stake, being drawn and quartered, and classic crucifixions? At different times in history all of the above were considered appropriate means for the state to eliminate undesirable persons.
I suspect the new South Carolina law will eventually be challenged in the Supreme Court. How they will respond is anyone’s guess, but I doubt the Republican skewed Supreme Court is likely to make a blanket ruling that any state execution violates the Eighth Amendment.
At least not yet. Hopefully the Democrats will eventually fix the Supreme Court. We need to add at least two, and preferably four seats to the US Supreme Court. There are three compelling reasons for increasing the size of the Supreme Court to eleven or thirteen seats:
- The Republicans stole seats and packed the court. McConnell prevented Obama from carrying out his Constitutional responsibility of appointing a member to the Supreme Court, when he was President. Trump pressured Kennedy to resign, in order to appoint Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh tried to rape a teenage girl, but was so drunk he had a blackout and couldn’t remember the incident. Amy Comey Barrett was totally unqualified and was rushed onto the court even after people began voting for the next president. The Republicans played dirty to pack the court. The Democrats are totally justified for righting the wrong.
- It will help the Democrats win in the short run, as Biden will be able to appoint two or four new Justices, even if no one else on the court dies or resigns.
- It will be good for the country in the long run. Eleven or thirteen seats on the Supreme Court will make for a more fair representation of justice, regardless of whether new Justices are appointed by a Democratic or Republican President.
Not until the US Supreme Court is corrected and there are more liberal justices than conservative ones, will SCOTUS rule capital punishment is unconstitutional. In the meantime, I am reminded of the ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
Sadly, we are now living in interesting times in South Carolina.