South Carolina has not executed an inmate in nearly four years, as the state has run out of a drug it uses for lethal injections and cannot get any more.
Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling said pharmaceutical companies — worried about public backlash — have stopped selling execution drugs like pentobarbital to states. The European Union has also barred any corporations headquartered there from selling any drugs to entities and governments that plan to use them in capital punishment.
The agency has previously said South Carolina’s supply of pentobarbital, a critical drug used in the execution process, expired in 2013. The state has not been able to acquire a new supply since that time, Stirling said.
“(Suppliers) may be afraid of protests or things of that nature,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “So, therefore, they’re deciding not to sell it if they know their name could get out into the public.”
In response, a state Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a bill that would keep the names secret of any pharmaceutical companies which sell execution drugs to South Carolina. It would also allow the Department of Corrections to buy the drugs outside the state’s normal procurement laws.
The Corrections subcommittee unanimously advanced the bill Tuesday following a five-minute meeting after no one spoke either for or against the bill. The meeting location had been changed earlier Tuesday morning.
Death penalty opponents say the law raises several legal concerns. “One set of legal issues it raises is the defendant’s right to know,” Death Penalty Information Center director Rob Dunham told South Carolina Radio Network. “How can you challenge the constitutionality of your execution if you don’t know what the means are? How can you ensure that you’re not going to be executed by means that are cruel and unusual… if they won’t tell you what the drugs are?”
He also said the public should be concerned about the very appearance of secrecy. “If they were building a bridge and they wouldn’t tell me who was manufacturing the cement or what the ingredients were, I would think that would be a problem.”
State law already keeps confidential the names of those who are on an execution team. Stirling said this would expand that definition to include the supplier. “We believe anybody that supplies the drugs is part of the execution and, right now, they are protected from their names being made public,” he said. “But, out of an abundance of caution, we’ve asked the legislature to expand it so we can show it to the companies and show that they will be protected.”
The proposed legislation is based on Georgia’s existing law, but also borrows from other states.
Death row inmates in South Carolina are allowed to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair. Nearly all have chosen the drug injection. The state’s last execution was in May 2011, when 36-year-old Jeffrey Motts was given a lethal injection for strangling his cellmate. Motts was already serving a prison sentence at the time for a previous double murder conviction.
There are 44 current inmates who have received death sentences in South Carolina, according to the Department of Corrections. Most are either appealing their sentence or have had the death sentence reversed to life imprisonment.