South Carolina Inmates to Appeals Court: Halt Electrocutions

(AP) -- The two South Carolina inmates scheduled to die this month under the state's recently reconfigured capital punishment statute are asking an appellate court to halt their deaths by electrocution.

On Monday, Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens filed a notice of appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The condemned men are seeking to overturn an order by U.S. District Judge Bryan Harwell, who on Friday declined to halt their upcoming executions. Attorneys for Sigmon and Owens had argued that South Carolina hasn't tried hard enough to get lethal injection drugs or compound them itself, as some other states have done, and that executing them by electrocution subjects the men to excruciating pain and violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Sigmon's execution is set for Friday in South Carolina's 109-year-old electric chair. Owens is scheduled to die a week later.

Their deaths were scheduled less than a month after the passage of a new law compelling the condemned to choose between electrocution or a firing squad in the event lethal injection drugs aren't available. The statute is aimed at restarting executions after an involuntary 10-year pause that the state attributes to an inability to procure the drugs.

Sigmon and Owens sued as the measure became law, saying they can't be electrocuted or shot since they were sentenced under a prior law making lethal injection the default method. Prisons officials say they still can't acquire lethal injection drugs and have yet to assemble a firing squad -- meaning that both men would die in the electric chair.

In his Friday order, Harwell wrote that Sigmon and Owens have failed to clearly show that electrocution violates the Eighth Amendment, citing more than a century's worth of federal court precedent.

Harwell's refusal marks a second blow against the inmates in their legal attempts to secure a reprieve. A state judge evaluating a lawsuit over the new death penalty law also declined to halt the executions earlier this week. The prisoners are also seeking respite from the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Both Sigmon and Owens have run out of traditional appeals in the last few months, leaving the state Supreme Court to set and then stay their executions after the corrections agency said it still didn't have lethal injection drugs.

Sigmon, 63, was convicted in 2002 of killing his ex-girlfriend's parents with a baseball bat in Greenville County. Owens, 43, was first sentenced to death in 1999 for the shooting murder two years earlier of a convenience store clerk during an armed robbery, also in Greenville County.

South Carolina is one of eight states to still use the electric chair and four to allow a firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Prison officials have not indicated a timeline for when the firing squad will be available though they have said they are researching how other states operate their squads.

South Carolina's last execution took place in 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired two years later. There are 37 men awaiting death in the state.