Capital punishment has been on the wane in the United States but an upcoming slate of executions has refocused attention on the use of the death penalty.
Richard Moore, a 57-year-old African-American man, is to be executed in South Carolina on April 29 for the 1999 murder of a convenience store clerk during a robbery.
It would be the first execution in the southern state in over a decade.
Recent US executions have been carried out by lethal injection but South Carolina has been forced to abandon that method because drug manufacturers are refusing to supply the necessary ingredients.
So Moore had the choice between the electric chair and a firing squad made up of three rifle-toting volunteers from the Corrections Department.
He chose the firing squad.
Moore’s lawyers have challenged both methods of execution, however, claiming they violate a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” A judge agreed on Thursday to hear their arguments.
“The electric chair and the firing squad are antiquated, barbaric methods of execution that virtually all American jurisdictions have left behind,” said Lindsey Vann, a lawyer for Moore.
Electrocution has been used for seven of the 43 executions in South Carolina since 1985. The last time was in 2008.
A firing squad has been used only three times in the United States – all in the western state of Utah – since 1976, when the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.
There have been three executions in the United States this year. There were 11 in 2021, down from 17 in 2020.
Only one of the executions in 2021 was of a woman and of the more than 1,540 people executed in the United States since 1976, only 17 have been women.
Melissa Lucio, 53, could be the 18th.
Lucio, a Mexican-American mother of 14, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in Texas on April 27 for the 2007 death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah.
Lucio claims a confession was coerced by police during a five-hour interrogation and that the toddler’s death was actually caused by an accidental fall down a staircase.
Her case has been championed by the Innocence Project, which fights for the wrongly convicted, and reality TV star Kim Kardashian, who has urged Texas Governor Greg Abbott to grant clemency for Lucio.
“The state extracted an unreliable ‘confession’ and used false scientific evidence to convict Melissa Lucio of a crime she did not commit and in fact never occurred,” said Vanessa Potkin, an attorney for Lucio.
“What we know today is this: Mariah died from medical complications after an accidental fall. She was not murdered.”
Also scheduled to be executed in Texas in coming days is Carl Wayne Buntion, who was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of a Houston police officer.
Buntion, who does not dispute his guilt, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on April 21.
At 78, he is the oldest man on Death Row in Texas and his lawyers have argued that executing him now – more than 30 years after the crime – would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Texas law also requires it be established that Buntion would “likely harm others if he is not executed,” his lawyers said.
Buntion, they said, poses no danger to anyone and suffers from multiple ailments including arthritis, vertigo, hepatitis, sciatic nerve pain, and cirrhosis.
“Mr. Buntion is a frail, elderly man,” his lawyers said in a petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, “and will not be a threat to anyone in prison if his sentence is reduced to a lesser penalty.”
Buntion also has been in solitary confinement for the past 20 years, restricted to his cell for 23 hours a day.
“When someone’s sentenced to death, the jury isn’t agreeing to sentence them to 30, 40, 50 years of solitary confinement and then death,” Burke Butler, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, told AFP.
“That is torture,” Butler said. “It’s widely agreed across the world that solitary confinement is incredibly cruel. To confine someone to solitary confinement and then execute them is even crueler.”
Texas has carried out far more executions – 573 – than any other state since 1976. Virginia, which abolished the death penalty last year, is next with 113.