DICK HARPOOTLIAN SLIPPED out of the South Carolina General Assembly on April 20 to tell me why people on death row should be allowed to die by firing squad. “My experience in this area probably exceeds most people’s,” he said, noting the death penalty cases he had handled during his time as a prosecutor, on and off, between 1975 and 1995. His most famous was that of Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, who had already been convicted of murdering nine people when Harpootlian charged him with a tenth murder in 1983. Gaskins got sent to the electric chair in 1991. Harpootlian chose not to watch him die—“There are plenty of prosecutors who relish the idea of executing somebody,” he told me. “I’m not one of them”—but the stories still haunt him. “His blood boiled, his hair almost caught on fire, his eyes … I think they did explode in his head,” Harpootlian recalled. “And it wasn’t that quick. They had to give him two jolts.”
It is probably no wonder that Richard B. Moore, a death-row inmate in South Carolina, chose an alternative. Until the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on the execution that had been scheduled for April 29, three agents with the state Department of Corrections had been planning to strap Moore to a chair, place a hood over his head, and shoot him through the heart. That Moore, who more than two decades ago killed a store clerk while fighting for control of the clerk’s gun during a robbery, opted to die this way is both an indictment of his options and a testament to Harpootlian. Bringing back death by rifle fire for the state’s first execution since 2011 was a shocking idea when the 73-year-old lawyer and current Democratic state senator first argued for it in March 2021. He described it at the time as a “desperation move to minimize the pain and suffering of the condemned.”
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