Executions in Tennessee paused through 2022 as Lee calls for independent review of lethal injections

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Posted at 7:44 AM, May 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-02 21:36:50-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Executions in Tennessee have been paused through the rest of the year as Gov. Bill Lee has called for an independent review of the lethal injection process.

On April 21, Gov. Lee issued a last-minute temporary reprieve in the hour before Oscar Franklin Smith was set to be executed. At the time, Lee said the delay was caused by a "technical oversight." Smith was set to be the first Tennessee death row inmate to die since executions were paused in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes," said Lee. "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."

Former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton will conduct an independent review of what the governor's office called "a lethal injection oversight." Specifically, the review will look into the circumstances
that led to testing the lethal injection chemicals for only potency and sterility but not endotoxins while preparing for Smith's execution, clarity of the lethal injection process manual, which was last updated in 2018, and it will consider Tennessee Department of Corrections staffing.

"An investigation by a respected third-party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed," said Lee. "We will pause scheduled executions through the end of 2022 in order to allow for the review and corrective action to be put in place."

Last week, death row attorneys called for the governor to change the state's execution protocols. They asked for an execution moratorium in a letter delivered to Gov. Lee's office on Thursday. 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."

Kelley Henry, an attorney with Nashville's Federal Public Defender's Office who represents inmates on death row, praised the governor's decision.

"Gov. Lee’s decision to pause executions pending an independent review of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol shows great leadership," said Henry. "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."

Four other inmates were scheduled to be executed this year in Tennessee. The Tennessee Supreme Court will determine when those executions will be rescheduled.

Lethal injection is the default method of execution in Tennessee, however, death row inmates may be executed by electric chair instead if they choose. Since 2019, three of four state executions have been performed by electric chair.