South Carolina inmates want deaths delayed during appeal

Days before what could be South Carolina’s first execution in a decade, the two inmates scheduled to die this month under the state’s recently revamped capital punishment statute want an emergency order to stop their planned electrocutions while they appeal their cases.

Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens on Tuesday asked the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for an injunction to halt execution plans during their appeal challenging the use of the electric chair. Attorneys for both men have argued that South Carolina hasn’t tried hard enough to get lethal injection drugs or compound them itself — as some other states have done. They also argued that executing them by electrocution subjects them to excruciating pain and violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Their request for a delay should be granted, the men’s attorneys argued, because Sigmon and Owens “will suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction.”

“Any harm the State might suffer from the delay inherent in an expedited appeal pales in comparison to … a torturous death,” they added.

Attorneys for the state of South Carolina have until Wednesday afternoon to file their responses in court.

On Monday, the condemned men formally sought to overturn an order by U.S. District Judge Bryan Harwell, who on Friday declined to halt their upcoming executions in South Carolina’s 109-year-old electric chair.

Sigmon’s electrocution is set for Friday; Owens is scheduled to die a week later.

Their deaths were scheduled less than a month after the passage of a new law compelling South Carolina’s condemned to choose between electrocution or a firing squad in the event lethal injection drugs aren’t available. The statute is aimed at restarting executions after an involuntary 10-year pause that the state attributes to an inability to procure the drugs.

Sigmon and Owens sued as the measure became law, saying they can’t be electrocuted or shot since they were sentenced under a prior law making lethal injection the default method. Prisons officials say they still can’t acquire lethal injection drugs and have yet to assemble a firing squad — meaning that both men would die in the electric chair.

Harwell wrote Friday that Sigmon and Owens have failed to clearly show that electrocution violates the Eighth Amendment, citing more than a century’s worth of federal court precedent.

The men’s remaining legal options are running thin. Last week, a state judge evaluating a lawsuit over the new death penalty law also declined to halt their scheduled executions. The prisoners are also seeking respite from the South Carolina Supreme Court. Both men have also exhausted their traditional legal appeals.

Sigmon, 63, was convicted in 2002 of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat in Greenville County. Owens, 43, was sentenced to death in 1999 for the shooting murder two years earlier of a convenience store clerk during an armed robbery, also in Greenville County.

South Carolina is one of eight states to still use the electric chair and four to allow a firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Prison officials have not indicated a timeline for when the firing squad will be available, though they have said they are researching how other states operate their squads.

There are 37 men under death sentence in South Carolina. The state’s last execution took place in 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired two years later.

Meg Kinnard can be reached at