South Carolina’s death penalty on trial this week

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Published: Aug. 3, 2022 at 7:10 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The constitutionality of the death penalty in South Carolina is on trial this week in a Richland County courtroom.

Attorneys for three current death-row inmates are suing the state, claiming South Carolina’s methods of execution constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Wednesday marked day three of this bench trial in downtown Columbia and the second and final day of witness testimony.

After hearing testimony from witnesses Tuesday, including South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, the plaintiff attorneys called their final witness to the stand Wednesday, forensic pathologist Dr. Jonathan Arden.

Arden testified to the effects death by electric chair and firing squad can have on the body.

Those are the two methods of execution allowed in South Carolina after the state halted lethal injection after no longer being able to obtain the drugs needed for it. That led the state legislature to approve use of the firing squad in 2021, and the Department of Corrections announced earlier this year that the state’s death chamber had been reconfigured and was ready to carry out executions in this manner.

In the months since, executions have been tied up in court, and South Carolina has not put an inmate to death since 2011.

Arden, the former chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C., testified Wednesday that after both execution by firing squad and electrocution are carried out, a person will remain conscious for around 15 seconds or longer.

In firing squad deaths, Arden said bullets have to break through soft tissue and bones to reach the heart, where sharpshooters are aiming. Under the protocol released by the Department of Corrections regarding the firing squad, three shooters will fire live rounds at the inmate’s heart.

“If someone were to be shot like that and then have a brief period of consciousness and were to breathe or move, that person would be experiencing excruciating pain,” Arden testified.

In electrocutions, Arden said as people are still conscious, they can feel what he described as “horrific pain.”

“I’m sorry to have to say this so plainly, but you get the effects on parts of the body, including internal organs, that’s the equivalent of cooking,” he said.

The defense’s first witness, cardiologist Dr. Jorge Alvarez of Texas, contradicted much of Arden’s statements in testifying specifically on the state’s firing squad protocol and on the effects of gunshot wounds directly to the heart.

Alvarez said under South Carolina’s protocol, after an inmate has been shot, their blood would stop flowing “relatively immediately” and cause a loss of consciousness within around 10 seconds, a shorter period of time than Arden stated.

“Stopping the heart from functioning in its appropriate manner and leading to a rapid decline in consciousness and awareness and ultimately death,” Alvarez said, testifying before the court virtually.

Dr. D’Michelle DuPre, a retired forensic pathologist, testified later about these protocols as another witness for the defense.

DuPre, who had previously worked in law enforcement in the Midlands and as a police science instructor at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, said she believes an inmate shot by the firing squad in South Carolina would lose consciousness quickly enough that they would not feel pain.

“The firing squad would be very rapid,” DuPre said. “It would be very destructive to the heart and the surrounding tissue. I believe that the person would become immediately unconscious, would not feel pain, and it, in fact, would not be cruel or unusual punishment.”

The defense also called Dr. Ronald Wright as an expert witness in pathology to testify on the electric chair and death by electrocution.

Wright, who testified virtually that he personally does not support capital punishment, said under South Carolina’s electric chair protocol — which calls for sending two high-voltage circuits of electricity followed by a low-voltage circuit — a person would become insensate, losing their ability to feel physical sensation, before their brain sends pain signals.

“If I had been sentenced to die, that would be my choice because it doesn’t hurt,” Wright said.

Under cross-examination by the plaintiff attorneys, Wright was asked if he had an opinion on the firing squad.

“Yes,” Wright replied, and when asked what that opinion was, he responded, “It hurts.”

The trial is expected to wrap up Thursday in Columbia, with no witnesses left and closing arguments remaining.

Once it is over, the South Carolina Supreme Court has asked Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman to deliver a ruling within 30 days.

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