South Carolina Prisoner Chooses to Be Executed by Firing Squad

A condemned South Carolina man who was directed to choose between being executed by electrocution or firing squad has chosen to be shot, setting up what would be one of the few executions by firing squad since the mid-1900s.

Richard B. Moore, who was convicted of murder for killing a store clerk and taking a bag of cash in 1999, is set to be executed on April 29. His execution would be the first under a new law, prompted by the state’s inability to find lethal injection drugs, that made electrocution the standard method but allowed prisoners to opt for a firing squad if they chose.

Utah is the only state that has executed a prisoner by firing squad in modern times, most recently in 2010. The state also used it to execute prisoners in 1996 and 1977.

Mr. Moore, 57, said in a statement filed with the South Carolina Supreme Court on Friday that he was choosing the firing squad but continued to believe that the method was unconstitutional, an argument he and other prisoners are making in a lawsuit that is currently in a lower court.

“I believe this election is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution,” he wrote.

The question of whether executing a prisoner by firing squad is constitutional has become increasingly urgent as states have found it harder to acquire the lethal drugs that had long been used in executions. Many of the pharmaceutical companies that supplied the drugs stopped doing so under pressure from medical and activist groups. In South Carolina, where the state has not executed anyone since 2011, prison officials said they have not been able to procure the lethal drugs necessary.

In recent years, as accounts of botched lethal injections in Oklahoma and elsewhere have mounted, more prisoners have argued that if they must be killed, they would prefer to be shot by a firing squad. When the Supreme Court turned down one Alabama prisoner’s plea to be killed by firing squad in 2017, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the firing squad might be the most humane method of execution.

The last person to be executed by firing squad in the United States was Ronnie Lee Gardner, in 2010, who said he had chosen that method because there would be “no mistakes.” A hood was placed over his head and a target strapped to his chest before a five-member team of state law enforcement agents fired a series of fatal gunshots, according to witness accounts.

Still, the firing squad is largely viewed as an archaic form of justice, and polling has suggested that many Americans view it as inhumane. A majority of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, but a 2014 poll found that only 9 percent of Americans viewed execution by firing squad as the most humane method, compared with 65 percent for lethal injection. (Four percent said the electric chair was the most humane method.)

The death chamber in Columbia, S.C., contains an electric chair, right, and a firing squad chair. For death by firing squad, three volunteer prison employees would fire rifles at the inmate’s heart.Credit…South Carolina Dept. of Corrections, via Associated Press

The South Carolina Department of Corrections said last month that it had spent about $53,000 to renovate a death chamber at a prison on the outskirts of Columbia, installing bullet-resistant glass between the chamber and witness room. A spokeswoman for the prison agency said prisoners who chose the firing squad would be strapped to a chair and a hood would be placed on them. Three volunteer prison employees would then fire rifles at the person’s heart.

The agency made the renovations after South Carolina lawmakers designated electrocution as the new default method of execution. The bill was sponsored by Republicans, but one of the lawmakers who proposed the firing squad alternative was State Senator Dick Harpootlian, a Democrat and former prosecutor who said he had done so because he believed the electric chair was inhumane.

“I believe the firing squad is much more instantaneous, much less painful,” Mr. Harpootlian said.

He said he supported the death penalty in only the most extreme cases and believed that Mr. Moore should not be killed.

“I don’t think he fits the ‘worst of the worst’ category,” Mr. Harpootlian said. “If I were prosecuting the case, I would not have sought the death penalty.”

Mr. Moore did not have a gun when he entered Nikki’s Speedy Mart, a convenience store in Spartanburg County, S.C., at about 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1999. At some point, he and the store clerk, James Mahoney, engaged in a dispute, and Mr. Moore shot him with a gun that was kept behind the counter by the store’s owner. Mr. Moore, who was shot in the arm during the altercation, fled after grabbing a bag of money totaling about $1,400. A jury convicted Mr. Moore in 2001 and recommended that he be executed.

Lawyers for Mr. Moore had earlier asked the State Supreme Court to find that the death sentence in his case was extreme, noting that he had entered the store without a gun and that there were contradictory claims about what led to the dispute between the men. The court rejected that argument, though one justice, Kaye Hearn, issued a blistering dissent, saying that the state’s system for reviewing death sentences “is broken” and that, in her view, Mr. Moore’s sentence was disproportionate to his crime.

Justice Hearn noted that lawyers with the state attorney general’s office could not point to another armed robbery in which someone had been sentenced to death for killing a person after entering the business unarmed.

Mr. Moore and three other death row prisoners have argued in a lawsuit that both electrocution and the firing squad are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, and a judge ruled this week that the lawsuit could continue.

Joshua Snow Kendrick, a lawyer in that lawsuit who is representing Brad Sigmon, the prisoner next in line to be executed after Mr. Moore, said he was forced to have difficult conversations with Mr. Sigmon over which execution method to choose if they are unsuccessful in court.

“We are dreading making that decision, and it comes down to just the violence of both methods,” Mr. Kendrick said. “I probably wouldn’t be comfortable going into the details, but it’s something we talk about all the time, it’s something we think about.”

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