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Prisons & Jails – Constitutional – Death Penalty – Execution Methods – Discovery – Lethal Injection

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//February 10, 2023

Prisons & Jails – Constitutional – Death Penalty – Execution Methods – Discovery – Lethal Injection

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//February 10, 2023

In four death-row inmates’ challenge to the constitutionality of two of the three execution methods set out in S.C. Code Ann. § 24-3-530 (electrocution and firing squad), the circuit court abused its discretion by denying the inmates’ discovery requests for information regarding the availability of lethal injection and the state’s efforts in making this execution method available.

We reverse the circuit court’s discovery ruling and remand for further proceedings.

On the current record, it is impossible to know exactly what steps the state has taken to procure the drugs for lethal injection and to evaluate the state’s assessment that such drugs are not “available” in South Carolina.

The inmates’ discovery requests regarding lethal injection are particularly relevant and reasonable in light of the fact that, for over ten years, other states have continued to perform executions using lethal injection, rather than electrocution and the firing squad. Inmates have argued that the latter two methods are unnecessarily destructive to the body and constitute cruel, corporal, and unusual punishment.

We appreciate the circuit court’s conscientious efforts to avoid the revelation of any information that would violate S.C. Code Ann. § 24-3-580’s prohibition on the knowing disclosure of the identity of a current or former member of an execution team or a record that would lead to this identification. We note, however, that the purpose of the statute is to prevent the public disclosure of this information. An additional key component of the statute is that it does contemplate that disclosure may be authorized when it is needed “for the proper adjudication of pending litigation,” and the information is held under seal.

The inmates’ requests for information regarding lethal injection are relevant and necessary for the proper adjudication of the issues in this matter. The potential to violate the statutory prohibition on disclosing the identities of members of the execution team did not require the broad denial of discovery to the inmates; rather, the court should have permitted discovery to proceed and required all such information to be placed under seal until the disclosed materials could be properly evaluated by a court, including the process of appeal. Accordingly, although its intentions were based on well-founded concerns, we hold the court committed an error of law amounting to an abuse of discretion in its denial of the inmates’ discovery requests pertaining to lethal injection.

On remand, information obtained shall not be disclosed to anyone other than the parties’ attorneys, the circuit court, and this court, and we direct that this information and any supplemental record that is developed on remand be kept confidential and under seal. The remainder of the appeal is held in abeyance pending the circuit court’s resolution of the discovery issue.

Reversed in part and remanded.

Owens v. Stirling (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-008-23, 8 pp.) (Donald Beatty, C.J.) Appealed from Richland County Circuit Court (Jocelyn Newman, J.) Thomas Ashley Limehouse, William Grayson Lambert, Erica Wells Shedd, Daniel Clifton Plyler and Austin Tyler Reed for appellants-respondents; Lindsey Sterling Vann, Emily Paavola, Hannah Lyon reedman, Breedan Matthew Van Winkle, Allison Ann Franz, Elizabeth Anne Franklin-Best, John Christopher Mills, Joshua Snow Kendrick and John Blume for respondents-appellants. S.C. S. Ct.

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