Members Only | March 23, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The public is recoiling at news of South Carolina reviving death by firing squad. Conservative Republicans, however, love it

What’s next? Is the state going to permit tar-and-feathering of convicted criminals? Sew scarlet letters on the shirts of adulterers?


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A recent press release from the South Carolina Department of Corrections tells us that “the department is now able to carry out an execution by firing squad.” 

It is worth reading the execution protocol: 

Three firing squad members will be behind the wall, with rifles facing the inmate through the opening. The rifles and open portal will not be visible from the witness room. All three rifles will be loaded with live ammunition…The inmate will wear a prison-issued uniform and be escorted into the chamber. The inmate will be given the opportunity to make a last statement. The inmate will be strapped into the chair, and a hood will be placed over his head. A small aim point will be placed over his heart by a member of the execution team. After the warden reads the execution order, the team will fire.

What’s next? Is the state going to permit tar-and-feathering of convicted criminals? Sew scarlet letters on the shirts of adulterers?  

South Carolina is now the fourth state to legalize firing squads, along with three other red states Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah. 

A nation against the death penalty
The thing most striking to me is not necessarily that the South Carolina legislature authorized death by firing squad, but that this embrace of barbarism is so at odds with the national zeitgeist. 

According to Gallup, support for the death penalty is at a five-decade low. One could argue that, at 54 percent, a majority still favors it as punishment for murder. But when Americans are asked if they could choose between life imprisonment with no choice for parole and the death penalty, 60 percent favor life imprisonment. 

This is the first time since the 1980s, when polls first asked the question, that Americans have favored life imprisonment over death.

It is unconscionable for people to be put to death wrongly. The public is now so anti-death penalty that many pharmaceutical companies no longer provide the drugs used for lethal injection.  

Public opinion is clearly trending away from capital punishment. The number of people put to death has decreased over the years. 

According to a brief from the Death Penalty Information Center: “2021 saw historic lows in executions and near historic lows in new death sentences. … Eighteen people were sentenced to death, tying 2020’s number for the fewest in the modern era of the death penalty.” 

In 1999, 99 people were executed. 

In 2020, 11 were. 

Much of the decrease is because states have abolished it or because states are more narrowly defining crimes punishable by death. 

We are more aware of the flaws in our legal system. 

The racial bias in death penalty sentencing is well documented. Indeed, Washington abolished the death penalty in 2018 in part due to the racial bias in capital sentencing within that state.  

We know the state often gets it wrong, too. 

The Netflix docuseries The Innocence Files revealed in excruciating detail how our system so often gets it wrong. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an average of about four wrongly convicted people on death row have been exonerated since 1973. 

It is unconscionable for people to be put to death wrongly.   

The public is now so anti-death penalty that many pharmaceutical companies no longer provide the drugs used for lethal injection.  

Conservatives and the death penalty
That brings us back to South Carolina. 

South Carolina has 37 people on death row to be executed because the drugs used for lethal injection have become difficult to obtain. 

The legislature wants so badly to kill these people, they have reinstated a practice that belongs in the 19th century. 

Why is South Carolina moving towards barbarism when it seems so much of this country is trending away from it? 

The answer is simple. You probably know what it is. 

South Carolina is dominated by conservative policies. According to Gallup, 77 percent of Republicans favor the death penalty. Seventy percent of “conservatives” say they support the death penalty. 

The national anti-death penalty trend has not reached the south. No southern state until Virginia last year had abolished the punishment. 

One could argue that Virginia is a southern state historically and geographically, but its politics are purple and oftentimes blue. 

Indeed, the death penalty was abolished during Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets reinstated under the current Republican governor. 

Allowing the state to kill people (who we hope are actually guilty) is unconscionable and it surprises me this gets so little attention.

Canada has no death penalty. Australia has no death penalty. The United Kingdom has no death penalty. Indeed, no European country has the death penalty except Belarus. 

Even Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty and hasn’t executed someone since the 1990s. 

We are the only country in the Americas to carry out executions. 

To be fair, the number of executions in the United States is far lower than the big five of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt. 

But that’s nothing to be proud of. 

So much of what is problematic about our country can be traced back to conservative ideologies that should no longer have relevance to an open, modern, post-industrial and democratic society. 

Execution, now by firing squad, is a prime example.  

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at Follow him @roderickgraham.


  1. Bern on March 23, 2022 at 8:27 am

    I always wondered, back when I was a peace officer, how it was that the moment I (theoretically – never even remotely in real life) captured a murderous bad guy, my priority was from then on to keep that person alive to face justice squarely and fairly. And that mandate continued on thru the long, sinuous route of American legal machinations – jail, courts, prison…
    And yet, after the bad guy was charged/tried/convicted/sentenced/imprisoned and permanently locked away and thus no threat to anyone, it was still perfectly legal for the state subsequently to drag him out and kill him.
    There is a level of paranoia rampant within the populace, paranoia and revenge fantasy.

    • Rod Graham on March 23, 2022 at 9:35 am

      Thanks for replying. I understand at a gut level the sense that you took the life of someone, then your life needs to be taken as well. I sympathize with people who take that view. But given the number of people who have been exonerated, the differences in sentencing for POC and men, it is just better to give someone life in prison.

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