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South Carolina judge says firing squad, electric chair violate state constitution

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A judge in South Carolina has ruled that two execution methods recently made available to death row inmates violate the prohibition against cruel, unusual, and corporal punishment codified in the state constitution.

On Tuesday evening, Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled that the firing squad and electric chair, two traditional means of execution which have fallen out of public favor in recent decades, could inflict severe pain and perhaps even a prolonged death, both of which could be considered "corporal" punishment.

As used in the state constitution, "corporal" refers not only to the body itself but to "mutilation of the body," Newman wrote in her ruling. This added protection against corporal punishment, she continued, offers "greater protections than those found in the Constitution of the United States," which bars only cruel and unusual punishment.

Last month, Newman presided over a lawsuit presented on behalf of four death row inmates in South Carolina — Brad Sigmon, Freddie Eugene Owens, Richard Moore, and Gary Dubose Terry — whose execution dates were looming and who were forced by the state to choose between the firing squad and electric chair since the drugs necessary for lethal injection have not been available in the state in nearly a decade.

During the four-day trial, Newman heard testimony from various witnesses who argued that a firing squad and electrocution both cause significant pain. Dr. Jonathan Arden, formerly of the medical examiner's office in Washington, D.C., stated the those who have been shot can experience excruciating pain for up to 15 seconds before they lose consciousness.

"In order for a volley of rifle shots to enter the front of the chest and impact and destroy the heart," Arden told the court, "there's a virtual guarantee that they will not only disrupt other soft tissues, which is a source of pain, but most importantly, they will break bones."

Arden also testified that the electric chair more or less amounted to "cooking" internal organs.

Despite testimony from witnesses who argued to the contrary, Judge Newman ultimately determined that the firing squad and the electric chair were both antiquated and inhumane forms of execution, a ruling which effectively forestalls executions for the foreseeable future. The state will likely appeal the decision.

Sigmon, Owens, Moore, and Terry were all convicted of at least one murder and sentenced to death between 1997 and 2002. South Carolina is one of just four states to authorize the use of firing squad in state executions and is one of eight states to permit electrocution. The last state execution in South Carolina took place in 2011.

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