COLUMBIA, S.C. – A South Carolina judge on Tuesday refused to block two executions set for later this month as she considers a lawsuit over the state’s new capital punishment law, which effectively forces condemned prisoners to choose to die by either the electric chair or firing squad.
State Circuit Judge Jocelyn Newman issued the decision to let the planned executions of Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens proceed after their attorneys had argued in court that the men should not be executed while the lawsuit is pending.
The two “have little likelihood of success on the merits of their claim,” Newman wrote.
If the executions proceed as scheduled, Owens and Sigmon would likely die in the state’s electric chair, as prisons officials say they can’t get hold of lethal injection drugs and have yet to put together a firing squad.
The lawsuit was filed shortly after Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law the bill aimed at restarting executions after an involuntary 10-year pause that the state attributes to an inability to procure lethal injection drugs. Lethal injection remains the default method, but the new law compels the condemned to choose between electrocution and a firing squad if drugs aren’t available.
Attorneys for the two men say they can’t be electrocuted or shot since they were sentenced under a prior law that made lethal injection the default execution method.
Both Sigmon and Owens are also seeking to block their scheduled deaths by electrocution in federal court, where they argue electrocution is cruel and inhumane and that state officials aren’t trying hard enough to obtain lethal injection drugs. A court hearing on that challenge is set for Wednesday.
Three men, including Sigmon and Owens, have run out of traditional appeals in recent months, leaving the state Supreme Court to set and then stay execution plans after the corrections agency said it didn’t have lethal injection drugs.
The South Carolina Supreme Court reset Sigmon’s execution for June 18 after prison officials indicated the state’s electric chair was ready for use. The court scheduled Owens to die a week later, on June 25.
Sigmon, 63, was convicted in 2002 of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat in Greenville County.
Owens, 43, was first sentenced to death in 1999 for the shooting murder two years earlier of a convenience store clerk during an armed robbery, also in Greenville County. He changed his legal name to Khalil Divine Black Sun Allah in 2015, according to court filings.
South Carolina is one of eight states to still use the electric chair and four to allow a firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Prison officials have not indicated a timeline for when the firing squad would be up and running, though they have said they are researching how other states operate their squads.
South Carolina’s last execution took place in 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired two years later. There are 37 prisoners on death row in South Carolina, all of them men.
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.