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Tennessee pauses executions, will review lethal injections

The pause will remain in effect through the end of the year to allow time for the review and corrective action, Republican Gov. Bill Lee said.
Capital punishment protesters pray at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution before the scheduled execution of inmate Oscar Smith in Nashville, Tenn., on April 21.Mark Humphrey / AP file
/ Source: Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee paused executions in Tennessee for the rest of the year on Monday to enable a review of its lethal injection procedures after a testing oversight forced the state to call off the execution of Oscar Smith an hour before he was to die.

A federal public defender praised the Republican governor for his “great leadership” for launching the review.

Former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton will review circumstances that led to the chemicals being tested only for potency and sterility but not for endotoxins in Smith’s case. He’ll also review the clarity of the lethal injection process manual and Tennessee Department of Correction staffing considerations, Lee said in a statement.

Inmate Oscar Smith.
Oscar Smith.Tennessee Department of Correction via AP

“I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said. “However, the death penalty is an extremely serious matter, and I expect the Tennessee Department of Correction to leave no question that procedures are correctly followed.”

Lee has not explained exactly why the execution was delayed. He issued a brief statement on April 21 at 5:42 p.m. saying that “due to an oversight in preparation for lethal injection, the scheduled execution of Oscar Smith will not move forward tonight. I am granting a temporary reprieve while we address Tennessee Department of Correction protocol.”

The move comes after Smith’s attorneys asked last week for a moratorium on executions and a review of the state’s execution protocols.

“Governor Lee’s decision to pause executions pending an independent review of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol shows great leadership. The use of compounded drugs in the context of lethal injection is fraught with risk. The failure to test for endotoxins is a violation of the protocol. Governor Lee did the right thing by stopping executions because of this breach,” Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry said.

Henry said last week that the night before the execution, she requested the results of tests for “potency, sterility and endotoxins” that are supposed to be carried out on the execution drugs if they are obtained from a compounding pharmacy. She had received no response. Henry suspects at least two of the three execution drugs were compounded, rather than commercially manufactured, she said, although secrecy rules surrounding Tennessee executions makes it difficult to know for certain.

While lethal injection was adopted as a humane alternative to the electric chair, it has been the subject of consistent problems and lawsuits.

Tennessee uses a three-drug series to put inmates to death: midazolam, a sedative to render the inmate unconscious; vecuronium bromide, to paralyze the inmate; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart. Officials have said the inmates are unconscious and unable to feel pain. Expert witnesses for inmates, however, have said the inmates would feel like they are drowning, suffocating and being burned alive, all while unable to move or call out.

Of the seven inmates Tennessee has put to death since 2018 — when Tennessee ended an execution pause stretching back to 2009 — five have chosen to die in the electric chair. Smith declined to make a choice, meaning he was scheduled to be executed by the state’s preferred method of lethal injection.

Smith was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing and shooting his estranged wife, Judith Smith, and her teenage sons, Jason and Chad Burnett, at their Nashville home on Oct. 1, 1989. At 72, Smith is the oldest inmate on Tennessee’s death row. His reprieve expires on June 1, after which the state Supreme Court will set a new execution date.