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Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee suspends executions, launches review of lethal injections

Under Gov. Bill Lee's order, the state of Tennessee will suspend its lethal injection executions for the rest of the year. File Image courtesy of Florida Department of Corrections
Under Gov. Bill Lee's order, the state of Tennessee will suspend its lethal injection executions for the rest of the year. File Image courtesy of Florida Department of Corrections

May 2 (UPI) -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday announced a suspension of executions in the state in the wake of a temporary reprieve granted to a death row inmate due to "technical issues" with lethal injections.

Executions have been halted through the end of the year as former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton conducts an "independent review" of the state's procedures for carrying out lethal injections, Lee announced in a statement.

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The move comes less than two weeks after the scheduled execution of 72-year-old death row prisoner Oscar Smith was put on hold after an "issue" was found with the injection.

"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."

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Lee temporarily paused Smith's planned April 21 execution shortly before it was set to be carried out, citing an "oversight" in the lethal injection preparation.

On Monday, he said Stanton's probe would include the circumstances "that led to testing the lethal injection chemicals for only potency and sterility but not endotoxins" in preparing for Smith's execution as well as the "clarity of the lethal injection process manual that was last updated in 2018, and adherence to testing policies since the update."

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Staffing levels at the corrections department will also be part of the review, Lee said.

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"An investigation by a respected third-party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed," the Republican governor said. "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."

Smith was initially scheduled to receive the lethal injection at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville before the COVID-19 pandemic. He was sentenced to death for the 1989 slayings of his estranged wife Judy Robird Smith and her two sons from a previous relationship, Chad Burnett and Jason Burnett.

Lee had declined to grant Smith clemency shortly before last month's rescheduled execution.

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Smith's lawyers argued in March that the three-drug protocol used in Tennessee's lethal injections is inhumane. The 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.

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