Category Archives: death penalty

Tennessee’s longest death row resident dies of apparent heart attack

A Sullivan County man sentenced to death in 1978, the longest tenured Tennessee inmate on death row, died in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville on Wednesday of natural causes, reports the Kingsport Times-News, quoting the man’s former defense attorney, Larry Dillow.

Donald Wayne Strouth, 55, was found guilty, along with Jeffrey Stuart Dicks, of murdering James Keegan, the owner of a used clothing store in downtown Kingsport.

On February 15, 1978 Strouth and Dicks entered the thrift store and knocked Keegan out with a blunt object. Strouth then stood over an unconscious Keegan and slit his throat from ear to ear with a hawk-bill knife, according to court records. Keegan was unconscious at the time Strouth slit his throat and believed to have bled out in 15 minutes.

Keegan’s wife found him on the floor a few hours later. During their investigation, police found Keegan had been robbed and witnesses testified to seeing Strouth with blood on his hands right after the murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Subsequent appeals by Strouth were denied over the years, including by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The state recently set an execution date for him: March 15, 2016….But Strouth died from an apparent heart attack Wednesday, more than 30 years after receiving the death sentence.

Supremes grill state attorneys on electrocution policy

From the News-Sentinel:
Tennessee Supreme Court justices on Wednesday grilled an attorney for the state on why — more than a year after the Legislature OK’d electrocution as a backup plan — no policy to carry it out has been drafted.

“Why is there no protocol today?” Justice Cornelia A. Clark demanded.

The justices were in Knoxville on Wednesday to hear a bid by the state to bar death row inmates from challenging the new law, which went into effect in July. Thirty-four death row inmates already are mounting a challenge to lethal injection but added to that case, currently in Davidson County Chancery Court, an attack on the new law.

The law makes the electric chair the state’s execution method in the event the state Department of Correction is unable to procure phenobarbital as part of its one-drug lethal injection protocol.

…TDOC won’t say whether the state still has a supply source for phenobarbital. The agency doesn’t have to, as it enjoys legislative protection from disclosing anything about the execution process — even to the inmates facing death.

But Supervisory Assistant Federal Defender Kelley Henry, whose office represents most of the death row inmates, said the defense has affidavits showing the key compounding agent is no longer available to the state.

That revelation, in turn, fueled the justices’ skepticism of Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith’s insistence the inmates had no right to challenge the constitutionality of the new electrocution law because none is likely to be strapped into the electric chair.

“As a practical matter, it’s just not going to happen,” Smith told the justices.
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AP’s look at issues in TN Supreme Court death penalty case

By Travis Loller,Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Thirty-four death-row inmates in Tennessee are challenging the state’s lethal injections protocols. On Wednesday, their attorneys asked the state Supreme Court to let them challenge Tennessee’s backup method of execution as well: the electric chair.

Here is a look at some of the chief issues involved:

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PENTOBARBITAL AVAILABILITY

Attorneys for the inmates say pentobarbital, Tennessee’s lethal injection drug, is impossible to obtain. Drug companies have stopped selling it or even its main ingredient, according to an affidavit from University of Utah College of Pharmacy professor James H. Ruble. That means compounding pharmacists will not be able to make it for the state.

And the American Pharmacists Association recently adopted a policy discouraging its members from providing drugs for lethal injections, saying that runs contrary to the role of pharmacists as health care providers.

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THE ELECTRIC CHAIR

If Tennessee cannot obtain pentobarbital, the backup method of execution is the electric chair. The inmates claim Tennessee’s electrocution protocol is unconstitutional and violates evolving standards of decency.

Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith argued in court on Wednesday that inmates should not be allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the electric chair until Tennessee officially certifies that it cannot obtain lethal injection drugs. That’s something that may never happen, she said.

Smith said even if pentobarbital is unavailable, the state could choose to execute with a different lethal drug.

The Tennessee Department of Correction commissioner has broad discretion to modify the lethal injection protocol, she argued. “There’s no indication the department will not make every reasonable effort to carry out executions by lethal injection.”
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TN Supreme Court halts all executions pending lethal injection rulings

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court postponed execution dates for four inmates, effectively halting all executions while the courts decide whether current protocols for putting people to death are constitutional.

Tennessee last executed a prisoner in 2009. Since then, legal challenges and problems obtaining lethal injection drugs have stalled new executions.

In 2013 and 2014, the state tried to jump-start the process with a new one-drug lethal injection method and the reinstatement of the electric chair as a backup. Beginning in December 2013, the court set new execution dates for 11 inmates. One inmate died in prison, and the execution dates for the others have been postponed as they approach because of legal challenges to the new methods.

On Friday, the court postponed the last of the scheduled execution dates. It will set new dates after the legal questions are settled.

States across the country have been struggling to find a method of execution that will stand up to legal challenges. And obtaining lethal injection drugs has been getting harder.

As manufacturers have refused to sell drugs to prisons for executions, prison officials across the U.S. have turned to compounding pharmacies, which make drugs specifically for individual clients. But those versions have also become difficult to come by because pharmacists are reluctant to expose themselves to possible harassment.

Last month, the American Pharmacists Association adopted a policy discouraging its members from providing drugs for lethal injections, saying that runs contrary to the role of pharmacists as health care providers.

Death row inmates challenging Tennessee’s lethal injection method recently submitted an affidavit from University of Utah College of Pharmacy professor James H. Ruble that questions whether even a willing compounding pharmacist could provide the pentobarbital that Tennessee and several other states need for executions.

Ruble says in the affidavit that the main ingredient for pentobarbital is unavailable from the six primary commercial sources that compounding pharmacists buy their ingredients from.

Tennessee last year reinstated electrocution as an alternative if lethal injection drugs are unavailable or a court rules the procedure unconstitutional. But that change has brought yet another legal challenge.

Other states are considering their own alternatives. Utah last month reinstated the firing squad as a backup method if it can’t obtain lethal injection drugs. In Oklahoma, lawmakers approved nitrogen gas as a backup execution method. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin supports the death penalty but has not said whether she will sign the bill.

State officials accidentally release name of pharmacy involved in executions

The state Department of Corrections has inadvertently provided to defense lawyers the name of a pharmacy furnishing drugs for use in lethal injections, reports the Tennessean. This comes with the department fighting in court to prevent release of names involved in executions.

Supervisory Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry, who is working for the inmates, said during a court hearing Friday that her office has been making public records requests to the Department of Corrections since the case was filed in November 2013.

In records supplied by the department in December, the name of a pharmacy supplying the drug used in lethal injection executions can be read, Henry told Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman.

Henry’s boss, Federal Public Defender Henry Martin, sent an affidavit to the court saying the name was not properly redacted and was read by only one staffer before being sealed in an envelope and stored in a locked cabinet.

“We still don’t know, quite frankly, whether we have the right to look at the contents of this envelope and use it in this (case),” Henry said.

Henry turned over the original document to the chancery court on Friday. A spokeswoman for the corrections department said Friday she could not comment on the matter.

What to do with the document — and how it may impact the inmates’ case — immediately stumped Bonnyman, the chancellor.

She said she would review the Tennessee Supreme Court’s March 10 ruling, which said the names should not be released, as a guide for how to handle the new allegations. She also said she would review public records law to see if it provides a course of action.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Sutherland echoed the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“And those documents should go back to the DOC,” he told the chancellor. “They are not relevant to the subject matter of this litigation. It’s repeatedly stated by the Supreme Court in its opinion.”

Supreme Court upholds death sentence first imposed in 1991

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts:
Nashville, Tenn. ¬– The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld a death sentence for a man who was convicted of first degree felony murder in 1991 for his role in the killing of an elderly couple during a string of burglaries near the Land Between the Lakes region.

In June 1988, William Eugene Hall escaped from a Kentucky prison with seven other inmates. Three of the inmates were captured near the prison, but Hall and four others were able to steal a pickup truck and drive into Stewart County, Tennessee, where they burglarized numerous residences in and around the Leatherwood community. On June 22, 1988, police discovered the bodies of Myrtle and Buford Vester, who had been shot and stabbed to death inside their home. Their car and other items were missing.

Hall was eventually captured in Texas and brought to trial in Humphreys County with a co-defendant, Derrick Quintero. Hall and Quintero were each convicted by a jury of two counts of first degree felony murder, three counts of grand larceny, one count of petit larceny, and three counts of first degree burglary. They were each sentenced to death for the murder of Myrtle Vester, and to life in prison for the murder of Buford Vester. In the late 1990s, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court affirmed their convictions and sentences.

Hall and Quintero then began the post-conviction process, claiming that their attorneys had been ineffective during the original appeal, and that new evidence would prove their innocence. In 2009, the Supreme Court denied post-conviction relief for Quintero but granted relief for Hall, finding that his attorneys had simply copied the original appellate brief filed by Quintero’s attorneys. Because of this, the Court said Hall was entitled to new attorneys and the opportunity to file an amended motion for new trial and to proceed with a delayed appeal.

Now, after reviewing the various claims filed by Hall’s new attorneys, the Supreme Court has again affirmed Hall’s convictions and sentence of death. Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a separate concurring opinion, in which she agreed that Hall’s death sentence is proportionate to the sentences imposed in similar cases, but reiterated her disagreement with the manner in which this Court reviews the proportionality of death sentences among all defendants in similar cases.

To read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. William Eugene Hall, authored by Justice Gary R. Wade, and the concurring opinion, written by Chief Justice Lee, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.

Supremes rule against disclosing names of those involved in executions

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts:
Nashville, Tenn. ¬– The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a trial court ruling ordering the State to disclose the names of those involved in the execution process in a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

The case – a lawsuit filed by death row inmates – 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. The dispute over the identity disclosures arose during the discovery process, the legal method by which opposing parties in a lawsuit gather information from one another.

The plaintiffs have asserted that the identities of the physicians, pharmacists, medical examiners, medical personnel, and executioners that participate in the lethal injection process are necessary to their case. The State contends the identities are not relevant and that state law makes the information confidential.

The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to compel the release of the information, and the State took this interlocutory appeal of that ruling to the Court of Appeals, which agreed with the trial court. The Tennessee Supreme Court then agreed to the State’s request to hear the case.

In an opinion written by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings, holding that, to be discoverable, information must be both relevant to the subject of the lawsuit and not privileged. The Court found it unnecessary in this case to adopt a privilege prohibiting the disclosure of the information, but found that the identities sought are not relevant to determine the constitutionality of the execution protocol as written. Therefore, the trial court was in error in granting the motion to compel the release of the identities.
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Senator contends death row defense lawyers wrongfully suing the state

Sen. Ken Yager contends the state agency that defends death row inmates has stepped outside legal boundaries by using taxpayer dollars to seek more information on the people and drugs used in executions while challenging a law that sets up electrocution as an alternative to lethal injection.

Yager, R-Harriman, was Senate sponsor of a bill enacted last year that calls for execution by electrocution if courts invalidate the state’s current lethal injection process. In a specially arranged appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, the senator charged that the Office of the Post-Conviction Defender is “acting outside the scope of its duties.”

Yager, who chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee, initially raised the issue in a letter to committee.

His in-person presentation came as the panel was reviewing the OPCD’s proposed $2.29 million budget for the coming year, which is included in Gov. Bill Haslam’s spending plan. The office is established under state law to represent death row inmates in their appeals, but Yager said state law does not allow the office to launch civil court lawsuits and that it has done so in the pending case of West v. Schofield, which is scheduled for a hearing before the state Supreme Court on May 6.

The lawsuit was filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, where the judge ruled that state officials must turn over to defense lawyers — under a protective order, not to be made public — the names of individuals involved in executions and the names of companies manufacturing the drugs that are used. With the case now headed to the Supreme Court following a Court of Appeals decision upholding the lower court ruling, Yager said a challenge to the electrocution law has been added by amendment.

“I really am disturbed that this office would use its resources in civil lawsuits to sue Tennessee,” Yager told the committee. “They are using taxpayer dollars to sue to the state.”
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Supremes agree to hear challenge to execution by electrocution

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts:
Nashville, Tenn. ¬– The Tennessee Supreme Court today has agreed to decide whether a death row inmate can properly challenge the constitutionality of the possibility of electrocution as a method of execution.

The lawsuit by 34 death row inmates challenges several aspects of Tennessee’s death penalty protocol. In an order filed today, the Court agreed to hear the State’s request to dismiss the plaintiffs’ challenge to electrocution as a method of execution, asserting that none of the plaintiffs is subject to execution by electrocution at this time.

Although there has not been a final decision in the case at the trial court level, some elements of the lawsuit have already been subject to appellate review. In addition to this claim regarding electrocution, the Supreme Court is considering whether the identities of those involved in the execution process – including medical examiners, pharmacists, and physicians – must be revealed to the death row inmates as a part of the discovery process.

The case will be heard by the Supreme Court in oral arguments on May 6 in Knoxville.

Supremes hear arguments on naming executioners

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday questioned why the attorneys for 10 death row inmates would need to know the names of the people who carry out Tennessee’s executions.

The inmates are challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee’s execution procedures, but the case has been on hold for months while the parties argue over whether the state is required to release the names.

In court, Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith argued that the names of the people who carry out the execution protocols are irrelevant to the question of whether the protocols are constitutional.

Justice Sharon Lee asked, “Don’t they have a right to determine whether the people carrying out executions are competent?”

Smith said inmates do not have a right to “supervise and oversee every detail of an execution.”

Even if the names were released only to the inmates’ attorneys, staff and experts, there is still a risk that they could become public and a potential for “extreme public backlash.” If a pharmacist who was publicly identified as providing execution drugs, it could destroy his career, Smith said.

Justices pressed plaintiff’s attorney Steve Kissinger on why the names of the individuals involved in executions were important to the inmates’ case.

The assistant federal defender from Knoxville seemed to struggle to find concrete examples, saying the names could be important for establishing proof in the case.

The Davidson County Chancery Court earlier this year found that the identities were relevant and ordered the state to turn over them over to the inmates’ attorneys. The state appealed, and it was upheld by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
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