Death Row Inmate Is Being Forced to Choose: Firing Squad or Electric Chair

Some argue Richard Moore shouldn’t even be on death row. Now he could become South Carolina’s test case for an archaic form of execution.
Gabrielle Caplan
Brooklyn, US
South Carolina Death Row Inmate Richard Moore Has to Choose: Firing Squad or Electric Chair
This photo provided by South Carolina Dept. of Corrections shows Richard Moore. (South Carolina Dept. of Corrections via AP)

Update 5:30 p.m. ET: On Friday, Richard Moore chose to be executed by firing squad.

In a written statement accompanying his decision, Moore said he did not concede that either method of execution before him was legal or constitutional but he strongly opposes death by electrocution.

“I believe this election is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution, and I do not intend to waive any challenges to electrocution or firing squad by making an election,” Moore said.

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Original story follows:

Richard Moore, 57, had eight days to make what’s arguably the hardest and most grotesque decision of his life: how he wants to die—by electric chair or firing squad. 

If he chooses the latter, which he must do by Friday, he’ll likely become South Carolina’s first inmate to die under the state’s new execution protocol. The process, which was finalized just last month, requires three prison-volunteers, all with live ammunition, to shoot at the condemned inmate, who has a small target over their heart and a hood over their head. 

And Moore’s other option, the electric chair, has been used only twice in the last 30 years in the state. 

“The electric chair and the firing squad are antiquated, barbaric methods of execution that virtually all American jurisdictions have left behind,” Moore’s lawyer, Lindsey Vann, wrote in a motion filed last Friday that argues the methods that her client is being forced to choose between warrant “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Moore’s supporters say he’s a test case for an archaic form of punishment in a state that can’t get its hands on the proper lethal injection drugs. And some question whether he should even be on death row at all: Moore was unarmed during an attempted robbery but ended up shooting a convenience store clerk with the clerk’s gun during a struggle in which Moore was also shot.

“When the drugs for lethal injection were not an option last year, they opted for changing the laws just so they can put him down,” Moore’s daughter Alexandria told VICE News. “What occurred the night my father was arrested was devastating and sad—but a mistake. Sentencing my dad to be executed is just another mistake being made that we are desperate to avoid.

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Moore’s appeals are all but exhausted, and unless a court intervenes, South Carolina will execute him on April 29 after he spent more than a decade on death row. But Moore has some surprising support in the state, including the former director of South Carolina's Department of Corrections, Jon Ozmint, who vehemently supports capital punishment. 

“I’ve probably participated in more executions than anybody else in our state right now. I think this case’s sentence is far out of proportion to any other death penalty case that I've seen,” Ozmint told VICE News.

“I’ve probably participated in more executions than anybody else in our state right now. I think this case’s sentence is far out of proportion to any other death penalty case that I've seen.”

An associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Kaye Hearn, also issued a rare and blunt dissent in Moore’s case: “The death penalty should be reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes in our society, and I do not believe Moore’s crimes rise to that level.” 

Hearn went on to call South Carolina’s justice system “broken.”

Moore’s death sentence is undoubtedly an outlier, not just in South Carolina, but the U.S. as a whole. Instead of Moore being considered “the worst of the worst”—a euphemism often used for those who receive the death penalty—Moore was unarmed when he entered a Spartanburg County, South Carolina, convenience store in 1999 intending to rob it to finance his drug habit. 

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But he got into a fight with the store clerk, James Mahoney, who had a gun. During the scuffle, Moore was shot by Mahoney in the arm, and Moore, in return, fatally shot Mahoney in the chest. Mahoney succumbed to his wounds, and Moore was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001. 

Prosecutors, however, argued that Moore didn’t stop to help Mahoney and instead, searched the store for cash. 

“The fact remains that if Mr. Moore had been fairly tried, he wouldn’t have been convicted of capital murder, even in South Carolina,” Robert Dunham, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, told VICE News. “Shooting someone in a struggle over their gun—particularly when you also are shot—looks to me more like heat of passion (voluntary manslaughter) or involuntary manslaughter (unintentional killing that results either from recklessness or criminal negligence) or even self-defense than premeditated murder.” 

Moore, who’s Black, was also convicted by a jury with zero Black representation. In 1932, the landmark Supreme Court decision Norris v. Alabama supposedly prohibited all-white juries from convicting people of color. During Moore’s 2001 conviction, prosecutors were able to strike all Black people from the jury; that left 11 white people and one person who was Hispanic. 

Moore’s victim was also white, and a number of studies conducted in South Carolina show that a defendant is far more likely to be sentenced to death if their victim is white. 

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Black people also comprise 78.5% of the people executed in South Carolina in the 20th century. Today, Black people make up more than half of South Carolina's death row despite being only 27% of the state's population, according to the ACLU.

When asked if race played a part in Moore’s sentencing, Ozmint, who oversaw the executions of 14 people between 2003 to 2011, said “I don't think race plays a part in our justice system. I've never seen a racial issue.” 

South Carolina is one of nine states that still use the electric chair and one of only four to authorize a firing squad, according to Death Penalty Information Center. The South Carolina Department of Corrections say the state has had trouble accessing drugs for executions since 2013  because it’s not one of the 14 states with shield laws protecting the drug companies from lawsuits if the drugs are used in an execution. 

Because of that, South Carolina hasn’t put an inmate to death in nearly 11 years. The trouble prompted the state to pass a new law in 2021 allowing firing squads so that executions in the state could resume. 

The state recently finished a $53,600 overhaul of its death chamber to add a metal chair that faces a wall with a rectangular opening 15 feet away from the inmate. Bulletproof glass was also added to the witness room. 

“Despite the physical distance between my father and I for the past over 20 years, he has not stopped being a father. Since he was first arrested, he hasn't stopped asking if I had finished my homework, what my mom made for dinner, or how my new family is doing,” Alexandria told VICE News. “Him being incarcerated has not stopped him from being part of our lives.” 

That could change in just over two weeks. 

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