Executions in SC could restart after McMaster signs ‘shield’ law to remove major hurdle

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Gov. Henry McMaster has signed into law a measure that now shields the identities of drug companies that provide the lethal drug cocktail used for executions in South Carolina.

The measure, known as a “shield” law, removes a major hurdle for South Carolina prison officials, who for years have lobbied the Legislature to pass a bill they say would restart executions, on pause since 2011.

For years, drug companies that sell lethal injection chemicals to states have refused to sell the drugs to the S.C. Department of Corrections because they don’t want their companies associated with executions, prison officials say.

The bill, S. 120, also contains provisions to keep secret the identities of people involved in preparing the execution, including execution team members.

McMaster signed the bill, sponsored by former solicitor and state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, May 12 sans fanfare or any remarks — a nonpublic and uneventful action a governor’s spokesman said was not unusual in his signing of numerous bills each year.

“For over five years, (Corrections) Director (Bryan) Stirling and I have called upon the General Assembly to pass a shield law so South Carolina could resume the enforcement of a jury’s lawful death sentence. This law will hopefully provide closure and justice for the grieving families and loved ones who have had to wait too long,” McMaster said in a statement released Monday.

Stirling could not be reached for comment by press deadline.

The signing doesn’t automatically mean executions will restart in South Carolina.

At least four of the current 34 inmates on South Carolina’s death have run out of appeals or are close to running out of appeals.

Lawyers representing condemned inmates utilize multiple legal tactics that can result in delays of executions.

Lindsey Vann, executive director of Justice360, a Columbia-based group that helps mount challenges to executions, declined comment Monday.

Hembree said Monday, “We are happy and pleased the governor signed it. We worked closely with Director Stirling to try to get a bill that would allow him to pursue this policy (carrying out executions by lethal injection) effectively.”

Hembree added the law will help bring closure “on the criminal justice side” of a tragedy, but the larger pain felt by a crime victim’s family “never really goes away.”

With executions on hold, South Carolina lawmakers in 2021 passed a law giving death row inmates the option to die by electrocution or firing squad if lethal injection was unavailable.

On Jan. 5, the S.C. Supreme Court heard arguments over a Sept. 6 2022, circuit court ruling by state Judge Jocelyn Newman, in which she ruled that two of the state’s three methods for electrocution — the firing squad and the electric chair — are unconstitutional.

The high court has not yet ruled whether the firing squad and electric chair are unconstitutional.

But, in late January, the five justices did send the case back to the lower court, asking why the state Department of Corrections had not been able to obtain lethal chemicals.

The case was brought by four death row inmates — Freddie Owens, Brad Sigmon, Gary DuBose and Richard Moore — against McMaster and Stirling.

The ruling stopped the state from moving forward with any executions, and kept in place South Carolina’s unintended 12-year execution moratorium.

This story may be updated.