NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Attorneys representing death row inmates in Tennessee have delivered a letter to Gov. Bill Lee's office asking him to stop all pending executions in Tennessee until he appoints an independent commission to review Tennessee's execution protocol.
Watch the full press conference in the video player below:
In the letter, the attorneys say, "there can be no trust in the Department of Correction to carry out an execution without first conducting an independent investigation of the execution protocol."
"The secrecy that shrouds the execution process in Tennessee is troubling," the letter continues.
Last Thursday, TDOC was scheduled to execute 72-year-old death row inmate Oscar Franklin Smith, but less than two hours before his scheduled execution, Lee issued a rare reprieve delaying the execution through June 1. He cited an "oversight in preparation for lethal injection." The next day, Lee referred to the delay as being caused by a "technical oversight," without further information.
Lee's spokesperson says the governor's office is preparing to release "more information and action steps" on Monday. On Thursday, the Governor's office acknowledged receipt of the letter containing the requests from the attorneys, but didn't offer any more details.
This week, the governor's office said the coming adjournment of the Republican-led General Assembly was one reason it has yet to release any details about what went wrong before the scheduled execution.
"I'm baffled by that statement, I don't see how the two are connected," said Kelley Henry, a death penalty attorney in the federal public defender's office, which represents Smith. "Either we know what went on or we didn't."
"This continued secrecy only adds to uncertainty and certainly undermines any credibility we could possibly have from any answers TDOC will finally give us on Monday," Henry said.
Henry says an execution moratorium of nine months to a year would be enough time to "thoughtfully" look at Tennessee's execution protocols, which afford for both the electric chair and lethal injection.
During a Thursday press conference announcing the request to the Governor, one Nashville religious leader appealed directly to Governor Lee's Christianity.
"You claim to be a man of faith, so you must know that everything legal ain't right," said Pastor Davie Tucker with Beech Creek Baptist Church.
The state's method of executing prisoners with a three drug lethal injection has proved controversial in Tennessee and in other states because death penalty attorneys argue the first drug the state uses -- the sedative Midazolam — doesn't keep inmates from sensing unconstitutionally cruel pain from the final drug, even though the second drug — which paralyzes the inmate — keeps them from being able to signal something's wrong.
"If you didn't have the paralytic on board, the media and official visitors would hear the screams of horror when the potassium chloride hit those veins, and then you'd have some questions for the Governor and the Department of Correction about this protocol," Henry said.
Governor Lee's reprieve for Oscar Smith expires on June 1. That would clear the way for the state supreme court to set a new execution date for Smith. Following the high court's rules, that new date would have to be at least one week after the reprieve ends, marking June 8 as the earliest date Smith could be put to death.
The state Department of Correction has another execution scheduled at Riverbend — for death row inmate Harold Wayne Nichols — on June 9.