South Carolina firing squad pushes U.S. criminal justice system into dark age

Richard Bernard Moore, a 57-year-old Black man who has been on South Carolina’s death row for more than two decades, has decided to die by firing squad, according to court documents filed Friday.

Moore, convicted of the 1999 killing of a convenience store clerk, was forced to choose between execution by firing squad or by electric chair because South Carolina lacks the drugs to administer lethal injections.

“I believe this election is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution,” Moore said in a statement Friday, noting that he only chose death by firing squad because he was required to choose a method.

Moore’s attorneys have asked the state Supreme Court to delay his execution while a lower court determines whether the firing squad and electric chair are cruel and unusual punishments.

Moore’s execution is scheduled for April 29. 

It’s important to remember the bloodlust that led us to this point, and in particular, South Carolina’s insistence upon killing incarcerated people even despite its limited means of doing so. For several years, states like South Carolina have struggled to obtain the drugs used to kill death row inmates, as many pharmaceutical companies stopped making or supplying those drugs amid pressure from activists and health professionals.

“The reason we don’t have the drugs, despite intense efforts to get them, is because the companies that make them, the distributors who distribute them and the pharmacists that may have to compound them don’t want to be identified,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster told CNN in 2017.

Some states have “shield laws” that hide the identities of lethal injection drug providers and others tasked with carrying out the killings. The governor and other death penalty backers have unsuccessfully pushed for a shield law in South Carolina — but if you thought not having one would end executions in the state, you’d be sorely mistaken. 

After going a decade without executions because of the inability to obtain lethal injection drugs, McMaster signed a law in 2021 that made the electric chair the state’s default method of execution. It also gave prisoners the option to die by firing squad. 

A death chamber in Columbia, S.C., including the electric chair, right, and a firing squad chair, left
A firing squad chair, left, and an electric chair in a death chamber in Columbia, South Carolina.South Carolina Dept. of Corrections via AP, file

In March, South Carolina’s Department of Corrections announced that it had made $53,600 worth of renovations to the “death chamber,” which they claimed would “comply with the law and add safety precautions.” 

Evidently, those “safety” measures included a new firing squad chair where incarcerated people will sit while they’re being riddled with bullets. 

It’s worth noting here that South Carolina’s administration of the death penalty has been decried as “racist, arbitrary, and error-prone” by the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. The state is 27 percent Black, yet Black people make up roughly 50 percent of its death row prisoners, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

What’s more, as the ACLU of South Carolina noted, dozens of inmates sent to death row have since been proven innocent. That includes George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old Black boy whom South Carolina executed by electric chair in 1944 after an all-white jury found him guilty of killing two white girls. He was exonerated 70 years later.