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Vol. 107, Issue 6


Ghosts of Executions Past: A Case Study of Executions in South Carolina in the Pre-Furman Era

John H. Blume, Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques at Cornell Law School and Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project

1 Sep 2022

The protracted and (somewhat) ongoing debate over whether lethal injection—in some or all of its forms—is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment is the newest variation on the question of whether a particular form of capital punishment is inhumane and cruel. The history of capital punishment in the United States over the last two centuries has been punctuated by attempts to find less painful and gruesome ways to kill persons society has condemned to die. Ironically, at least from a historical perspective, some recent executions have seen condemned inmates or their attorneys elect some of the older methods, i.e., electrocution, or offer, as a potentially less painful alternative, the firing squad or death by lethal gas. And some states, including the main subject of this Article, have resurrected electrocution and the firing squad because of a claimed inability or difficulty in obtaining execution drugs. In this Article, I will trace the history of execution methods in the pre-modern era of capital punishment (before 1972), primarily in South Carolina, pointing out the often-intractable problems with their implementation process (including specific “botches”), and then address other aspects of executions that have relevance to the current debate about the wisdom and efficacy of retaining the “modern” American death penalty in the twenty-first century.

To read this Article, please click here: Ghosts of Executions Past: A Case Study of Executions in South Carolina in the Pre-Furman Era.