'Oversight in preparation' derails execution of Tennessee death row inmate

Oscar Smith was sentenced to death for the 1989 murders of his estranged wife and her two sons from a previous relationship. File Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Corrections
Oscar Smith was sentenced to death for the 1989 murders of his estranged wife and her two sons from a previous relationship. File Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Corrections

April 21 (UPI) -- Tennessee's execution of a death row prisoner convicted of killing his estranged wife and her two sons in 1989 was put on hold Thursday after an issue with the injection.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said the execution of Oscar Smith, 72, would not move forward Thursday night "due to an oversight in the preparation for lethal injection."


"I am granting a temporary reprieve while we address Tennessee Department of Correction protocol," Lee wrote on Twitter.

Smith was scheduled to receive the lethal injection at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, the first person the state's put to death since early 2020, before the pandemic. He was sentenced to death for the deaths of his estranged wife Judy Robird Smith, and her two sons from a previous relationship, Chad Burnett and Jason Burnett.

He was originally set to be executed in June 2020, but the Tennessee Supreme Court delayed it in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, citing the safety of staff and the ability of Smith's legal team to carry out their work.


Lee on Tuesday declined to grant Smith clemency in a straightforward, single-sentence statement, offering little in the way of explanation.

"After thorough consideration of Oscar Smith's request for clemency and an extensive review of the case, the state of Tennessee's sentence will stand, and I will not be intervening," he said.

Smith's legal team sought to reopen their client's case in the weeks leading up to his execution date in response to what they said was new evidence that could cast doubt on his guilt.

In a court filing, Smith's lawyers said new touch DNA evidence discovered on the murder weapon warrants a reconsideration of the case. The DNA doesn't belong to Smith, indicating another, unknown killer, the court documents indicate.

In Smith's original trial, expert testimony indicated there was "no doubt" a palm print found on the awl belonged to Smith. Defense attorneys said the fact that the DNA evidence points to another individual pokes holes in prosecutors' "most important piece of evidence."

"DNA evidence shows that an unknown assailant -- not Mr. Smith -- used the bloody murder weapon found at the crime scene to murder Mr. Smith's family," Smith's attorney, Amy D. Harwell, said at the time. "New technology makes it possible to identify the unknown person's DNA. Mr. Smith has steadfastly maintained his innocence since his arrest in 1989 -- unable, until now, to scientifically prove that he was not the killer."


The Tennessee Supreme Court denied the request to reopen the case.

In a separate court filing in March, Smith challenged the state's three-drug protocol used in its lethal injections. Tennessee's protocol includes midazolam (a sedative), vecuronium bromide (a paralytic) and potassium chloride (which causes death), according to the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center.

Critics of the death penalty have argued that midazolam, which is supposed to make executions painless, doesn't actually numb the pain. The drug, in combination with a paralytic, leaves prisoners unable to express pain, they say.

Smith's filing in March argued that the state's protocol violates state and federal constitutions. He's requested, instead, to be executed by firing squad.

Smith's was one of two executions in the United States scheduled for Thursday. Texas executed Carl Buntion, who killed a police officer in 1990 making him the fourth person executed in the United States this year.

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