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Tennessee reschedules execution citing coronavirus pandemic

April 17 (UPI) -- The Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday delayed the execution of a death row inmate citing the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down much of the state.

Oscar Smith, 70, was set to be put to death by lethal injection June 4, but the court rescheduled the execution for Feb. 4.

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Smith's lawyers requested the delay, saying lockdown orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic have hindered their ability to carry out the investigations and other legal work that typically takes place in the last several weeks before an execution. Gov. Bill Lee issued a stay-at-home order March 31, shutting down non-essential businesses and urging residents to remain at home whenever possible.

"The court was absolutely right to stay Oscar Smith's execution because of the COVID-19 virus," Kelley Henry, supervisory assistant federal public defender, said in an email to UPI.

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"It makes no sense to bring execution witnesses and other people into the prison and possibly expose them to COVID-19 infection or introduce the virus into the prison population.

"Mr. Smith, who has always maintained his innocence, needs to meet with his attorneys to prepare a clemency petition and investigators need to interview people to get information for the clemency petition. None of that face-to-face work can happen at this time without risking public health."

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Smith's is the sixth scheduled execution to be stayed or rescheduled since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted business as usual in the United States. Texas has put off the executions of John Hummel, Tracy Beatty, Fabian Hernandez, Billy Wardlow and Carlos Trevino.

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Smith was sentenced to death for the 1989 slayings of his estranged wife, Judy Smith, and her two sons, Chad Burnett and Jason Burnett.

Smith's lawyers said his case has been "plagued by multiple constitutional violations," accusing one juror of being biased and saying the jury as a whole considered inaccurate information from outside the courtroom. The defense team also said two jurors mistakenly believed a life sentence for Smith would have meant only 13 years in prison for him.

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