Category Archives: death penalty

Another TN death row inmate dies of natural causes

The Department of Corrections has announced the death from natural causes Tuesday of Gary Cone, who spent 34 years on Tennessee’s Death Row after conviction for murdering an elderly Memphis couple in 1980. He was 67.

As the Nashville Scene points out, Cone is the second death row inmate to die of natural causes this month. The state has not executed anyone since 2009 and 64 men and one woman remain on death row — likely awaiting death from natural causes.

TN death row inmate dies without execution

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee death row inmate has died at a Nashville hospital of natural causes.

The state Department of Correction said William Stevens was 60. He died early Monday.

Stevens was convicted of especially aggravated robbery and two counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death in Davidson County in 1997.

Further from the Nashville Scene’s blog:

Stevens was convicted of especially aggravated robbery and two counts of first degree murder for the 1997 deaths of his wife, 45-year-old Sandra Jean Stevens, and her mother, 75-year-old Myrtle Wilson. Stevens was found guilty of hiring 18-year-old Corey Milliken to murder the two women and stage a burglary at their home. He was sentenced to death in 1999. Milliken is serving a life sentence.

…Stevens is the first death row inmate to die since Donald Strouth died of natural causes — after nearly 40 years on death row — in May of last year.

Tennessee has not executed anyone since 2009. The state set execution dates for 10 men in early 2014, but in April 2015 all executions were put on hold. After Stevens’ death Monday, 65 men and one woman remain on death row.

TN inmates ask courts for execution instead of life sentences

Two inmates at Tennessee’s Turney Center prison, both serving life sentences for murder, are asking courts to be executed, writes columnist Frank Daniels. An excerpt:

Kenneth D. Thomas, who was convicted in the 1999 New Year’s Eve murder of Andrew Titus and sentenced to life without parole… has continually pleaded his innocence as he filed a number of appeals over the past 12 years. The Tennessee Supreme Court denied his last appeal, based on recanted trial testimony, on July 21.

His final petition, to the U.S. Supreme Court, again proclaims his innocence, but if the high court is unwilling to review his conviction, Thomas has asked the court to compel the state to give him a “death with dignity” by euthanasia.

Citing the Eighth Amendment, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” Thomas says he would rather die and donate his organs — preferably to his parents — than “suffer the indignities of being an innocent prisoner.”

While there is virtually no chance that the court will honor Thomas’ wishes, his petition has caught the attention of other inmates at the Turney Center Industrial Prison Complex in Only, including Steven D. Skinner.

Skinner said that he had filed a petition with the Hickman County Chancery Court to be euthanized instead of serving out his sentence. Skinner also was convicted of murder.

“I feel as (Thomas) does that euthanasia has to be an option for prisoners sentence (sic) to die behind bars as we are,” Skinner wrote in a letter. “Can you tell me, why should we continue to rot away in here just awaiting death?”

It is an interesting question these men pose.

In Belgium, which has allowed terminally ill adults and those dealing with unbearable pain to choose euthanasia since 2002, a convicted serial rapist and murderer, Frank Van Den Bleeken, successfully petitioned for euthanasia in 2014. The court granted his petition because of the “voluntary, considered and repeated” requests he had made to be euthanized.

His death was scheduled for Jan. 11, but the procedure was canceled Jan. 6 and he was transferred to a psychiatric prison ward.

Tennessee has no right-to-die statute, though the legislature has been studying a “death with dignity” bill filed on behalf of John Jay Hooker, who was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in January.

…At lunch Tuesday, I asked Hooker what he thought of the inmates’ requests.

“It seems to me,” said Hooker, who looked good and was in good spirits, “that our constitution would support their requests.”

Chancellor upholds TN lethal injection protocol

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee judge on Wednesday upheld the state’s lethal injection process for executing inmates.

Davidson County Chancery Judge Claudia Bonnyman said from the bench that the plaintiffs, 33 death row inmates, didn’t prove that the one-drug method led to a painful and lingering death. She also said the plaintiffs didn’t show during a lengthy trial that there have been problems in states where the method has been used.

“Plaintiffs were not able to carry their burdens … on any of their claims,” Bonnyman said.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Kelley Henry said they plan to appeal.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a statement he hoped the families of victims would be comforted by the ruling.
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Dueling experts testify on TN lethal injection

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Supreme Court says the death penalty is constitutional, so there must be a constitutional way to carry it out. But attorneys for 33 death row inmates say lethal injection isn’t one of them.

In a trial that began July 7, the inmates’ attorneys have been trying to prove the injection of deadly chemicals into a prisoner’s veins carries an unacceptably high risk of extreme suffering and can cause a lingering death.

The case comes just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure, which uses different drugs than Tennessee but considered some of the same broad issues.

Inmates’ attorneys say the claim of lingering death is a novel one. It is based on the theory that an overdose of sedatives can put inmates into a death-like coma without truly killing them for hours.

One witness who is an expert in resuscitation told the Davidson County Chancery Court it might be possible to revive an inmate who had been declared dead half an hour later or more. Another witness who is an expert in anesthesiology suggested that an inmate could recover spontaneously.
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Death row inmate attorneys won’t interview executioner

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Attorneys for 33 Tennessee death row inmates have withdrawn a request to have the state’s executioner testify at a trial challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection.

In a notice filed after business hours on Friday, attorney Kelley Henry states the executioner’s testimony is no longer needed because of evidence presented by attorneys for the state and “other developments in the case.”

Henry declined to elaborate on what evidence her declaration refers to, saying that would be giving away their trial strategy.

Henry also withdrew a request to visit the execution chamber.

Attorneys for the state had been fighting to block both the testimony and the visit.

Attorneys for the inmates are trying to prove Tennessee’s lethal injection protocols are likely to cause their clients extreme suffering and a lingering death.

AP story on TN lethal injection testimony

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the second day of a trial over Tennessee’s lethal injection protocols, testimony centered on the role of compounding pharmacists and whether a person can be legally dead if he or she can still be revived.

Tennessee’s protocol calls for the use of pentobarbital mixed to order by a pharmacist. That’s because the only commercial producer of the drug has placed restrictions on its distribution to prevent it from being used in executions.

Dr. James Ruble is a professor with the University of Utah College of Pharmacy. He testified Wednesday that Tennessee’s protocol lacks the safeguards to prevent problems with the compounded drug and could cause the condemned inmate to suffer extreme pain.

Attorneys for the state tried to show Tennessee Board of Pharmacy regulations are sufficient to guard against such problems. Under cross-examination, Ruble said a pharmacist who doesn’t follow proper procedures will be at risk of losing his or her license. But he also said compounded pentobarbital is considered a high-risk category of compounding, even when everything is done correctly.

Later Wednesday, resuscitation expert Dr. Lance Becker testified that some inmates could be revived a half-hour or more after execution.

Attorney Steve Kissinger is representing the 33 Tennessee death row inmates suing over lethal injection. He said that someone who can still be revived is not legally dead under Tennessee law. That means the inmates are subjected to a lingering death, which amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, Kissinger said.

He also argued that the state pronounces an inmate’s sentence served about five minutes after execution. “After that, the state has no legal authority over his body,” Kissinger argued.

Assistant Attorney General Linda Kirklen argued that Becker’s testimony was irrelevant because a sentence of death is final and irreversible. There is no chance an inmate will be resuscitated, she said.

The trial comes a week after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure, which uses different drugs than Tennessee, but the case considered some of the same broad issues.

Supremes reject challenge to TN electrocution executions as premature

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts:
Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that a challenge by death row inmates to electrocution as an alternative execution method is premature and therefore unripe for resolution by the courts at this time.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court determined that the issue is not “ripe” because none of the inmates is currently subject to death by electrocution and will not ever be subject to death by electrocution unless lethal injection is declared unconstitutional or the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction certifies to the Governor that an ingredient essential to lethal injection is unavailable. Neither of these statutory contingencies has occurred and may never occur. Ripeness in a legal sense requires that a claim not be contingent upon future events that may or may not occur.

The case comes to the Supreme Court via an interlocutory appeal, an appeal concerning a particular issue while the case is still pending in a lower court. In 2013, the death row inmates filed a claim challenging the constitutionality of the State’s lethal injection protocol. Last year, the General Assembly passed a law establishing electrocution as an alternative form of execution if the lethal injection protocol was found unconstitutional or if the Commissioner certified that an ingredient essential to lethal injection was not available.

After the law was passed, the inmates amended their complaint to include challenges to electrocution and to the law designating it as an alternative method of execution. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss those claims, which the trial court denied. The defendants appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Although the Court determined that the inmates’ challenges are not presently ripe, the Court declared that any future orders setting execution dates will require the State to give the inmates notice of the method of execution that will be used to carry out their scheduled executions. The Court explained that if the State at some future time notifies the inmates that their executions will be carried out by electrocution, the inmates may then challenge electrocution and request a stay to litigate their claim.

This is the second time the Court has ruled on an issue in the inmates’ lawsuit challenging the State’s execution protocol. In March of this year, the Court determined that the State was not required to release the names of individuals involved in the execution process. The case now returns to the trial court. A previous Supreme Court order directed the trial to begin by July 8.

Agency retreats from execution lawsuit

Bowing to a legislator’s objections and facing a scheduled public hearing, the state agency that defends death row inmates has decided to abandon its role in a lawsuit seeking information on the people and drugs involved in executions.

The state Senate Government Operations Committee recently scheduled an August hearing on state Sen. Ken Yager’s contention that the Office of Post-Conviction Defender was in violation of state law and misusing taxpayer dollars.

“Because the OPCD’s statutory authority to proceed as counsel in the present litigation is an issue currently being considered by the legislature, the OPCD has determined that it is proper to withdraw as counsel in the above-captioned case,” Post-Conviction Defender Justyna Scalpone said in documents filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, where the lawsuit was initially filed. “Questions regarding the legal representation should not detract from the substance of the litigation.”

The office is established under state law to represent death row inmates in their appeals, but Yager, R-Kingston, said the relevant statutes do not allow the office to launch civil lawsuits and that it had done so in the case of West v. Schofield.
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Nebraska vote raises hopes of TN death penalty opponents

News release from Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (May 27, 2015) – With a final tally of 30 to 19, Nebraska legislators today voted to repeal the state’s death penalty.

Although earlier this week Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the body’s votes for repeal, the Nebraska legislature had enough votes to override the governor’s veto, thereby passing the bill into law.

“Legislators and advocates crossed party lines in Nebraska, and this bipartisan support highlights increasing concerns about our states’ reliance on capital punishment,” said Stacy Rector, executive director for Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (TADP). “Nebraskans have sent a strong message, and we hope that residents and legislators in Tennessee will use this as an opportunity to join the conversation about the death penalty system’s inherent flaws.”

Reconsideration of the death penalty is not only an issue for the left side of the political spectrum. Repeal in Nebraska – a politically conservative state – demonstrates a growing trend among conservative individuals and states of re-evaluating the death penalty on its inability to align with conservative values.

According to Tennessee Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (TCCADP), the death penalty system is marked by “inefficiency, inequity and inaccuracy.”

TCCADP has five overarching concerns about capital punishment: cost to taxpayers, the lack of deterrent effect, the possibility of executing the innocent, the emotional strain that the system puts on victims’ families due to the prolonged process and the potential for discrimination in the death penalty system.

“We have a lot of work left to do in Tennessee, but Nebraska shows us that change is happening,” Rector said.