If prosecutors convict Dylann Storm Roof and then seek the death penalty—and despite calls from Governor Nikki Haley, it’s not clear they will—the Charleston shooting suspect could be sitting on death row for a long time. The last execution in South Carolina was in 2011, despite a list of 44 people awaiting execution. The pace of executions has slowed to a crawl, in a state that has put 282 people to death over approximately the last century. And the reasons that this slowdown has happened may also give prosecutors pause in this case.
In its earliest days, South Carolina was notoriously expansive in its definition of what qualified for the death penalty; a slave could be put to death for destroying grain, for instance. It is still one of the top 10 states for per capita executions, following the Supreme Court suspension of the dealth penalty in 1976 and its subsequent reinstatement. But South Carolina’s relationship with capital punishment has gotten complicated, some for reasons that align with national trends and some specific to the state. On one hand, it’s a place where, just last year, a judge posthumously exonerated a black boy executed in 1944—the kind of case that has led some states to move away from the death penalty. On the other hand, months later, a state legislator sought the reintroduction of firing squads to make it easier to execute criminals.
One cause of the statewide drop in executions helps explain why there would even be a doubt about whether Roof will face the death penalty: It’s expensive. In 2012, one South Carolina prosecutor who had intended to seek the death penalty changed his mind because of the cost. “Once you file for the death penalty, the clock gets moving and the money, the taxpayers start paying for that trial,” he said, reflecting broader angst in the state about the price of death penalty trials, appeals, and retrials, compared to a life sentence. Mathematically, if fewer prosecutors seek the death penalty, the result is fewer executions. Roof’s case would seem a likely candidate to set aside the question of cost, and some predict the death penalty will indeed be sought. But then, it would surely be one of the costlier death penalty trials, because there’s a link between a case’s prominence and its price. (The prosecutor leading the Roof case is controversial with the black community.)
But there are other reasons for the decline in the execution rate, according to South Carolina government officials, namely the difficulty in acquiring drugs needed for lethal injections. “Right now, what we’re doing is we are looking and reaching out to pharmacies and suppliers et cetera to try to find pentobarbital,” S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said, explaining how the shortage contributed to the slowdown. “We have thus far not been successful at that.” The availability of drugs is an issue other states are confronting, too. Overall, the drop in executions in South Carolina and the reasons for that are “consistent with across the country,” says Emily Paavola, executive director of the state’s Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center.
But the death penalty still remains popular within the state. Nationwide, public support for capital punishment has fallen, partly stemming from the number of exonerations of death row inmates and partly stemming from declining crime rates; that has, in turn, driven politicians in many states to oppose capital punishment. But even death penalty opponents admit that the same shift has yet to happen in South Carolina, except, Paavola says, with regard to the use of the death penalty for the mentally ill, the subject of a poll by her group in 2009.
Opponents of the death penalty have tried to seize on the case of South Carolina’s George Stinney to shift public attitudes. Even among historical exonerations, Stinney’s case stands out: The 14-year-old was electrocuted more than 70 years ago after a two-hour trial that convicted him of beating two white girls to death; in 2014, he was posthumuously exonerated by a judge who cited the all-white jury and a compromised confession. “The case has haunted the town since it happened,” the Washington Post wrote, and “Stinney’s case has tormented civil rights advocates for years.” One of the defense attorneys working the case said the state needed to correct the record. “South Carolina still recognizes George Stinney as a murderer,” Matt Burgess told CNN. “We felt that something needed to be done about that.”
But the Stinney case hasn’t put a halt to a steady stream of bills introduced in the Statehouse that meant to make capital punishment easier, like the legislation introduced by State Representative Joshua A. Putnam to allow firing squads to be used when lethal injection drugs aren’t available. Overall, Paavola’s group has watched the list of factors that makes a case qualify as death-eligible grow since 1976. “The Legislature has, over the years since the death penalty was reinstated, expanded that,” she said, but she noted that individual prosecutors have used their discretion differently. ”From our perspective, the result is, often, very arbitrary selection.”
The Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center isn’t commenting on the Roof case, at least not yet. But on the day of the Charleston shooting, the group called it a “sad day for all in SC.” And the group noted that it had just recently started working with State Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was among the murdered. He had been helping them fight a bill that would hide information about how lethal injections are carried out from the general public.