New US law makes death row inmates choose electric chair or firing squad

A US governor has signed a new law forcing death row inmates to choose the electric chair or firing squad.

New US law makes death row inmates choose electric chair or firing squad

A US governor has signed into law a bill that forces death row inmates, for now, to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad in hopes his state can restart executions after an involuntary 10-year pause.

Two inmates who have exhausted their appeals immediately sued, saying they can't be electrocuted or shot since they were sentenced under a prior law that made lethal injection the default execution method.

South Carolina had been one of the most prolific states of its size in putting inmates to death. But a lack of lethal injection drugs brought executions to a halt.


Governor Henry McMaster signed the bill on Friday with no ceremony or fanfare, according to the state Legislature's website.

It's the first bill the governor decided to deal with after nearly 50 hit his desk Thursday.

"The families and loved ones of victims are owed closure and justice by law. Now, we can provide it," Mr McMaster said on Twitter yesterday.

Last week state lawmakers gave their final sign-offs to the bill, which retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has the drugs, but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it doesn't.

Prosecutors said three inmates have exhausted all their normal appeals, but can't be killed because, under the previous law, inmates who don't choose the state's 109-year-old electric chair automatically are scheduled to die by lethal injection.

They have all chosen the method that can't be carried out.

How soon executions can begin is up in the air.

The electric chair is ready to use.

Prison officials have been doing preliminary research into how firing squads carry out executions in other states but are not sure how long it will take to have one in place in South Carolina.

The other three states that allow a firing squad are Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.

Three inmates, all in Utah, have been killed by firing squad since the US reinstated the death penalty in 1977.

Nineteen inmates have died in the electric chair this century, and South Carolina is one of eight states that can still electrocute inmates, according to the centre.


"These are execution methods that previously were replaced by lethal injection, which is considered more humane, and it makes South Carolina the only state going back to the less humane execution methods," Lindsey Vann of Justice 360, a non-profit that represents many of the men on South Carolina's death row, said.

Two of the three inmates with no more traditional appeals sued yesterday to stop any attempts to make them face the electric chair or a firing squad.

Lawyers for Freddie Owens said he chose lethal injection under the old law and he can't be resentenced to a different execution method without violating his constitutional rights.

Lawyers for Brad Sigmon made similar arguments.

He did not choose between lethal injection and the electric chair and under the old law would have been given the lethal injection by default.

Legal arguments by both inmates in state court said the new execution law is "so vague that the process and consequences of the election decision are unclear to a person of ordinary intelligence".

From 1996 to 2009, South Carolina executed about three inmates a year on average.

But a lull in death row inmates reaching the end of their appeals coincided a few years later with pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell states the drugs needed to sedate inmates, relax their muscles and stop their hearts.

South Carolina's last execution took place in May 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013.

Supporters of the bill said the death penalty remains legal in South Carolina, and the state owes it to the family of the victims to find a way to carry out the punishment.


Opponents brought up the case of 14-year-old George Stinney, who South Carolina sent to the electric chair in 1944 after a one-day trial in the deaths of two white girls.

He was the youngest person executed in the US in the 20th century.

A judge threw out the black teen's conviction in 2014.

George's case is a reminder the death penalty in South Carolina has always been "racist, arbitrary, and error-prone" and continues to be, said Frank Knaack, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"In the midst of a national reckoning around systemic racism, our Governor ensured that South Carolina's death penalty — a system rooted in racial terror and lynchings — is maintained," Mr Knaack said in a statement.

Nineteen of the 37 inmates currently on the state's death row are black.

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'They absolutely are going to kill us': Afghan interpreters fear US withdrawal

"The Taliban is calling us and telling us, 'Your stepbrother is leaving the country soon, and we will kill all of you guys.'"

'They absolutely are going to kill us': Afghan interpreters fear US withdrawal

Ayazudin Hilal served as an interpreter alongside US soldiers on hundreds of patrols and dozens of firefights in eastern Afghanistan.

He earned a glowing letter of recommendation from an American platoon commander and a medal of commendation.

But still, the 41-year-old father-of-six was turned down when he applied for one of the scarce special visas that would allow him to relocate to the US with his family.


Now, as American and NATO forces prepare to leave the country, he and thousands of others who aided the war effort fear they will be left stranded, facing the prospect of Taliban reprisals.

"We are not safe," he said of Afghan civilians who worked for the US or NATO.

"The Taliban is calling us and telling us, 'Your stepbrother is leaving the country soon, and we will kill all of you guys.'"

The fate of interpreters after the troop withdrawal is one of the looming uncertainties, including a possible resurgence of terrorist threats and a reversal of fragile gains for women if chaos — whether from competing Kabul-based warlords or the Taliban — follows the end of America's military engagement.

Interpreters and other civilians who worked for the US government or NATO can get what is known as a special immigrant visa, or SIV, under a program created in 2009 and modelled after a similar program for Iraqis.

Both SIV programs have long been dogged by complaints about a lengthy and complicated application process for security vetting that grew more cumbersome with pandemic safety measures.


US. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last month the US was committed to helping interpreters and other Afghan civilians who aided the war effort, often at great personal risk.

The Biden administration has launched a review of the SIV programs, examining the delays and the ability of applicants to challenge a rejection. It will also be adding anti-fraud measures.

Amid the review, former interpreters, who typically seek to shield their identities and keep a low profile, are becoming increasingly public about what they fear will happen should the Taliban return to power.

"They absolutely are going to kill us," Mohammad Shoaib Walizada, a former interpreter for the US Army, said in an interview after joining others in a protest in Kabul.

At least 300 interpreters HAD been killed in Afghanistan since 2016, and the Taliban had made it clear they will continue to be targeted, said Matt Zeller, a co-founder of No One Left Behind, an organisation that advocates on their behalf. He also served in the country as an Army officer.

"The Taliban considers them to be literally enemies of Islam," said Mr Zeller, now a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

"There's no mercy for them."


Members of Congress and former service members have urged the US government to expedite the application process, which now typically takes more than three years.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on May 10 that the US Embassy in Kabul had temporarily increased staff to help process the visas.

In December, Congress added 4000 visas, bringing the total number of Afghans who could come with their immediate family members to 26,500, with about half the allotted amount already used and about 18,000 applications pending.

Critics and refugee advocates said the need to relocate could swell dramatically if Afghanistan tumbled further into disarray.

As it is, competing warlords financed and empowered by US and NATO forces threaten the future along with a resurgent Taliban, which has been able to make substantive territorial gains against a poorly trained and poorly equipped Afghan security force largely financed by US taxpayers.

"While I applaud the Biden administration's review of the process, if they are not willing to sort of rethink the entire thing, they are not going to actually start helping those Afghans who are most at need," said Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist whose research focuses on Afghanistan.


Mr Coburn estimates there could be as many as 300,000 Afghan civilians who worked for the US or NATO in some form over the past two decades.

"There is a wide range of Afghans who would not be tolerated under the Taliban's conception of what society should look like," said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Those fears have been heightened by recent targeted killings of journalists and other civilians as well as government workers. The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan has claimed responsibility for several, while the Taliban and government blame each other.

President Joe Biden raised the nation's overall cap on refugee admissions to 62,500 this month, weeks after facing bipartisan blowback for his delay in replacing the record low ceiling set by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

The US is not planning to move civilians out en masse, for now at least.

"We are processing SIVs in Kabul and have no plans for evacuations at this time," a senior administration official said.

The White House was in the beginning stages of discussing its review with Congress and would work with legislators if changes in the SIV program are needed "in order to process applications as quickly and efficiently as possible, while also ensuring the integrity of the program and safeguarding national security," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Former interpreters have support in Congress, in part because many also have former American troops vouching for them.

Mr Walizada, for example, submitted a letter of support from an Army sergeant who supervised him in dozens of patrols, including one where the interpreter was wounded by Taliban gunfire.

"I cannot recall a linguist who had a greater dedication to his country or the coalition cause," the sergeant wrote.

Mr Walizada was initially approved for a visa, but it was later revoked, with US Citizenship and Immigration Services telling him that it had "adverse information you may be unaware of," in a letter he provided to The Associated Press.

He said he had appealed the decision and hadn't received a response.

Mr Hilal, who translated from Dari and Pashto to English for the Army from June 2009 to December 2012, was rejected by the US Embassy, which said he did not meet the requirement for "faithful and valuable service," because he was fired by the contracting firm that hired him after 3 1⁄2 years of service.

It was a stinging response, considering the dangers he faced. "If I haven't done faithful and good service for the US Army, why have they given me this medal?" he said, holding the commendation, in an AP interview at an office in Kabul used by the former interpreters to meet with journalists.

Why he was fired by the US-based contractor, Mission Essential, is unclear. Mr Hilal said he had a conflict with supervisors that started with a dispute over a work assignment. The company said it did not discuss current or former employees and declined to comment.

But whatever happened eventually, a November 2019 letter of support from his platoon commander was highly complimentary of "stellar" service that "rivals that of most deployed service members."

Mr Hilal was by his side on hundreds of patrols and dozens of firefights, monitoring enemy radio traffic and interpreting during encounters with locals, Army Major Thomas Goodman said in the letter.

"He was dependable and performed admirably," Major Goodman wrote.

"Even in firefights that lasted hours on end, he never lost his nerve, and I could always count him to be by my side."

An AP journalist was embedded with the unit for a time, amid intense fighting in eastern Afghanistan, and captured images of Hilal and Goodman, surrounded by villagers as American forces competed with the Taliban for the support of the people.

Mr Goodman said he stood by his recommendation but declined to comment further.

Mr Coburn, who interviewed more than 150 special immigrant visa recipients and applicants for a recently released study of the program, said Mr Hilal's denial reflects a rigid evaluation process.

"There is no nuance to the definition of service," he said.

"You either served or you didn't serve."

The special immigration visa program allows applicants to make one appeal and many are successful.

Nearly 80 per cent of 243 Afghans who appealed in the first quarter of 2021 were subsequently approved after providing additional information, according to the State Department.

Mr Hilal said his appeal was rejected.

Mr Bates, of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said the fact there was a US Army officer willing to support should count for something.

"Even if he doesn't qualify for the SIV program, this plainly seems like someone who is in need of protection," he said.

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