Charleston Suspect Up Against South Carolina's Record On Death Penalty

06/22/2015 12:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

NEW YORK, June 21 (Reuters) - Charleston's chief prosecutor has yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty for the man accused of murdering nine African-Americans at a landmark church, but South Carolina is a state with a history of embracing capital punishment.

South Carolina has an execution rate of 8.3 per every 10,000 people, the seventh highest in the country, according to Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center, a group that opposes capital punishment.

Since 1979, 180 people have been sent to death row, the center says, and a total of 43 prisoners have been put to death in the four decades since capital punishment was reinstated in the Palmetto State.

"This is a state that has the death penalty and it imposes it," said Miller Shealy, a former South Carolina Assistant State Attorney General.

Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, is accused of gunning down the nine victims during a Bible study class at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was a premeditated shooting, prosecutors say, and it shocked the nation in its apparent callousness and the racist motivations that may lie behind the attack.

The intense publicity could galvanize public support for executing the suspect if he is convicted, just as it did in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man convicted in the Boston Marathon bombing, some officials say.

"This is our Boston bomber," said Shealy, who now works as a professor at Charleston School of Law.

Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson will likely spend months building her case, considering evidence and psychological evaluations of the suspect, before announcing her intentions.

After Roof's arrest, she said she would not comment on the progress or direction of her investigation. Ashley Pennington, a public defender representing Roof, did not return calls seeking comment.

Despite the state's record, the Charleston case stands out in at least one respect that could work against a decision to seek the death penalty against Roof.

In a gesture that reflected deep religious conviction, the families voiced tearful forgiveness for the suspect during his first court appearance on Friday.

While none of them have said publicly whether they want the prosecutor to seek death, their merciful stances suggest that they may well oppose execution, experts in capital punishment say. Those wishes could prove difficult for Wilson to ignore.

"All prosecutors say that they are very influenced by the family," said Eric M. Freedman, a professor of constitutional rights at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University. "It's a factor, but it's not the biggest factor."

There are many precedents when families of murder victims have persuaded prosecutors to seek life sentences, rather than the death penalty, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington-based non-profit.

"Ultimately, the choice is for the prosecutor to make," said Dunham, adding that Charleston may present a special case.

"When you have victims whose lives where about peace and inclusiveness and whose families have called for forgiveness and mercy, seeking the death penalty against their will could amount to further victimization by the system."

Interviews on the streets of Charleston in the days after the shooting suggest residents are divided in their feelings over the issue.

Bob Morrison, a white man who said his Catholic faith leads him to oppose the death penalty in general, said he feels differently in Roof's case.

"When you do something as hideous as this, I don't think the taxpayer should be supporting him for his whole life in jail," Morrison said from the historic Charleston City market.

But Michael Taylor, a 56-year-old postal worker who is black, said he did not want to see Roof executed. "It would just be more death," he said.

Around the country a majority of U.S. adults still favors the death penalty but support has slipped to 55 percent in 2013 from 62 percent in 2011, a Pew Research Center survey found.

Since 1912, South Carolina has executed 282 people, 74 of them white and 208 black, according to the state Department of Corrections. Prior to that, counties carried out executions by hanging.

Now, South Carolina uses lethal injection as its primary method, but it is one of eight states that still turns to the electric chair if the drugs used in executions are unavailable, according to DPIC.

In light of drug shortages affecting executions across the country, a bill is pending in the South Carolina Legislature to add firing squads to the state's roster of execution methods.

Currently, there are 44 inmates on South Carolina's death row, housed at the Broad River Correctional Institution in the capital city of Columbia.

The size of South Carolina's death row ranks 16th out of the 31 states with capital punishment, plus the U.S. military and the federal government, according the to DPIC. California leads with 746, and Wyoming and New Hampshire have one each.

In terms of executions that are carried out, South Carolina and North Carolina are tied for ninth place, with 43 executions, DPIC data shows. Texas is the leader by far with 526, followed by Oklahoma with 112.

South Carolina has also fallen in line with the national trend of turning to the death penalty less frequently in recent years. The last time the state executed an inmate was in 2011. (Additional reporting by Edward McAllister in Charleston and Frank McGurty in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty)

Also on HuffPost:

  • Lethal Injection
    Until 2010, most states used a three-drug combination: an anesthetic (pentobarbital or sodium thiopental), a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) to paralyze the muscle system, and a drug to stop the heart (potassium chloride). Recently, European pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell drugs to the U.S. for use in lethal injections, requiring states to find new, untested alternatives.
  • Gas Chamber
    Gas chambers, like this one pictured at the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Mo., were first used in the U.S. in 1924. In the procedure, an inmate is sealed inside an airtight chamber which is then filled with toxic hydrogen cyanide gas. Oxygen starvation ultimately leads to death, but the inmate does not immediately lose consciousness.
  • Electric Chair
    The first electric chair was used in 1890. Electrodes attached to an inmate's body deliver a current of electricity. Sometimes more than one jolt is required.
  • Hanging
    Hanging was used as the primary method of execution in the U.S. until the electric chair's invention in 1890. Death is typically caused by dislocation of the vertebrae or asphyxiation, but in cases when the rope is too long, the inmate can sometimes be decapitated. If too short, the inmate can take up to 45 minutes to die.
  • Firing Squad
    This Old West-style execution method dates back to the invention of firearms. In a typical scenario in the U.S., the inmate is strapped to a chair. Five anonymous marksmen stand 20 feet away, aim rifles at the convict's heart, and shoot. One rifle is loaded with blanks.
  • Beheading
    Wikimedia Commons
    Decapitation has been used in capital punishment for thousands of years. Above is the chopping block used for beheadings at the Tower of London.
  • Guillotine
    Kauko via Wikimedia Commons
    Invented in France in the late 18th century during the French Revolution, the guillotine was designed to be an egalitarian means of execution. It severed the head more quickly and efficiently than beheading by sword.
  • Hanging, Drawing and Quartering
    Wikimedia Commons
    A punishment for men convicted of high treason, "hanging, drawing and quartering" was used in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. Men were dragged behind a horse, then hanged, disemboweled, beheaded, and chopped or torn into four pieces.
  • Slow Slicing
    Carter Cutlery/Wikimedia Commons
    Also called "death by a thousand cuts," this execution method was used in China from roughly A.D. 900 until it was banned in 1905. The slicing took place for up to three days. It was used as punishment for treason and killing one's parents.
  • Boiling Alive
    Wikimedia Commons
    Death by boiling goes back to the first century A.D., and was legal in the 16th century in England as punishment for treason. This method of execution involved placing the person into a large cauldron containing a boiling liquid such as oil or water.
  • Crucifixion
    Wikimedia Commons
    Crucifixion goes back to around the 6th century B.C.used today in Sudan. For this method of execution, a person is tied or nailed to a cross and left to hang. Death is slow and painful, ranging from hours to days.
  • Burning Alive
    Pat Canova via Getty Images
    Records show societies burning criminals alive as far back as the 18 century B.C. under Hammurabi's Code of Laws in Babylonia. It has been used as punishment for sexual deviancy, witchcraft, treason and heresy.
  • Live Burial
    Antoine Wiertz/Wikimedia Commons
    Execution by burial goes back to 260 B.C. in ancient China, when 400,000 were reportedly buried alive by the Qin dynasty. Depending on the size of the coffin (assuming there is one), it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours for a person to run out of oxygen.
  • Stoning
    Wikimedia Commons
    This ancient method of execution continues to be used as punishment for adultery today.
  • Crushing By Elephant
    Wikimedia Commons
    This method was commonly used for many centuries in South and Southeast Asia, in which an elephant would crush and dismember convicts as a punishment for treason.
  • Flaying
    Michelangelo/Wikimedia Commons
    Records show flaying, the removal of skin from the body, was used as far back as the 9th century B.C.
  • Impalement
    Wikimedia Commons
    Records show this execution practice used as far back as the 18th century B.C., where a person is penetrated through the center of their body with a stake or pole.
Suggest a correction