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No Executions in Tennessee 2022: Let’s Keep It Up in 2023

2022 could be called “the year of the botched execution” because of the high number of states with failed or bungled executions. Seven of the 20 execution attempts were visibly problematic — an astonishing 35% — as a result of executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols, or defects in the protocols themselves. On July 28, 2022, executioners in Alabama took three hours to set an IV line before putting Joe James Jr. to death, the longest botched lethal injection execution in U.S. history. Executions were put on hold in Alabama, Tennessee, Idaho, and South Carolina when the states were unable to follow execution protocols. Idaho scheduled an execution without the drugs to carry it out. One execution did not occur in Oklahoma because the state did not have custody of the prisoner and had not made arrangements for his transfer before scheduling him to be put to death. The Death Penalty in 2022: Year End Report, Death Penalty Information Center​

As you know, after TADP, attorneys, pastors, and others urged Governor Lee to stop executions and to look into the problems with Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol, he stopped the five executions scheduled for this year in order for an independent investigation of the protocol to be conducted. This was the right thing to do. The investigation’s findings will be released by year’s end. 

Support TADP today to make the most of this moment to prevent executions and move our state closer to death penalty repeal.

Execution Pause: The governor was moved to act after he became aware of “technical problems” with the lethal injection protocol, leading him to stop the execution of Oscar Smith an hour before it was to take place. It is clear that the issues with Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol go far beyond technicalities.

Four days after Governor Lee halted executions, state attorneys admitted in a document filed in federal court in a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol, “that they have learned that there may be factual inaccuracies or misstatements” in their prior filings. More revelations indicate that the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) failed to follow its own protocols in preparation for Mr. Smith’s planned execution, as well as for past lethal injection executions, and that the pharmacist supplying the drugs is willing to break the rules of professional conduct.

These discoveries are deeply disturbing, but not surprising. Such outcomes are a predictable result of a Tennessee law that shrouds the lethal injection process in secrecy and the state’s reliance on overworked and underpaid correctional staff, without medical or pharmaceutical expertise, to carry out executions.

We must seize this moment! Your gift to TADP today will enable us to do just that.

Lifting the Shroud of Secrecy: In 2023, TADP will educate Tennesseans about why the state’s secrecy statute, shielding the lethal injection protocols from public view, has led to the current situation. If Tennessee is unwilling to carry out executions in the light of day, this only reinforces TADP’s belief that we shouldn’t be carrying them out at all.

During this critical moment in Tennessee when all executions are on hold, your support will allow us to work to keep the pause on executions in place in 2023 and to encourage even more citizens to reexamine our reliance on a policy that is failing to prevent future violence, failing to address the needs of those who have been harmed, and failing to make us safer. Together we will make the most of this moment and move Tennessee even closer to repeal! 

​Thank you for your support, and Happy Holidays!

When Innocence Is Not Enough

I remember reading Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in the 1993 Herrera v. Collins case with my mouth gaping open. In that case, Justice Scalia opined that the Constitution does not stop the government from executing someone, even if new evidence indicates that the person may be “actually innocent.” At the time of Herrera, only one other justice agreed with this distorted analysis: Clarence Thomas.

The court has changed.

Radley Balko’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post demonstrates how a once unthinkable position was made law in the 6-3 Shinn v. Ramirez ruling. In Shinn, SCOTUS determined that even though the court did not find the innocence claims of Barry Lee Jones, a man on Arizona’s death row, to be unpersuasive, it did find that the federal courts were barred from considering them. Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion.

If you are baffled as to how the highest court in our nation could determine that actual innocence isn’t enough to protect a person from execution, join the club. When the final arbiter in our criminal legal system determines that expediency and procedure trump getting to the truth, administering actual justice, and ensuring that the innocent are not executed, our system is in terrible trouble. Under no circumstance should anyone face execution if, as the title of Balko’s article frighteningly summarizes, “The Supreme Court says guilt is now beside the point.”

Balko closes his piece by revisiting Mr. Jones case:

Every court to consider the actual merits of Barry Jones’s innocence claim has ruled that he should never have been convicted of murder. And every court to rule against Jones did so for procedural reasons without considering the new evidence. If Jones is executed, it will not be because there is overwhelming evidence of his guilt. It will be because of a technicality. During oral arguments in 2021 for last week’s ruling, Brunn Roysden of the Arizona attorney general’s office said something that ought to chill us to the bone. When a federal court is deciding whether it has the power to overturn a state conviction, he said, “innocence isn’t enough.” He said it again for emphasis. And then he won

Read Radley Balko’s opinion piece.

Governor Bill Lee Stops All Executions in 2022

On Monday, May 2, Governor Bill Lee announced that the five executions scheduled this year in Tennessee would be halted for an independent review into the problems with the lethal injection preparation that led to Oscar Smith’s reprieve on April 21. Former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton will oversee the review.

“I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said in a statement. “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.”

For years, attorneys have demonstrated that the drugs used in Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol risk a torturous and unconstitutional execution. Tennessee also relies on correctional staff, without medical training, to oversee this process. The fact that there was an issue on April 21 is a predictable result of such a flawed process and only emphasizes the the depth of the problems with this protocol.

TADP is deeply grateful to Governor Lee for his leadership and recognition that the investigation into the protocol must be independent, transparent, and thorough. This is the right thing to do.

And, if Tennesseans truly want to embrace a culture of life, we should go a step further. We should reject the false narrative that the death penalty makes us safer or provides justice. Instead we should focus our energy and resources on healing and crime prevention. We should invest in trauma informed solutions that focus on accountability, mental health, and early intervention to prevent crime. We should get victims of violence and surviving families of murder victims the help that they need to heal so that their healing isn’t reliant on what happens to the people who’ve caused them harm. 

During this pause on executions as the lethal injection protocols are reviewed, Tennesseans must reexamine our continued reliance on a policy that is failing to prevent future violence, failing to address the needs of those who have been harmed, and failing to make us safer.

Read more about Governor Lee’s decision.

Honoring Life This Springtime

In nature, springtime is ripe with possibility. Trees bud, buttercups bloom, temperatures warm, and life comes alive.

This spring, In sharp contrast to the season, states like Texas and Tennessee schedule death. They “schedule” death, as if an execution is simply another appointment on a calendar like getting a haircut or going to a PTA meeting.

Texas has scheduled the execution of Melissa Lucio for April 27, only 20 days from this posting. Ms. Lucio faces execution for a crime that almost certainly never happened. In 2008, she was sentenced to death for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter Mariah, who died tragically two days after accidentally falling down a flight of stairs. Ms. Lucio was taken into custody and blamed for her child’s death. According to the Innocence Project:

Detectives jumped to judgment and just two hours after Mariah died, took Ms. Lucio in for questioning. During the interrogation, officers berated and intimidated Ms. Lucio, who was pregnant and in shock from the loss of her child, for five hours. Research has shown that survivors of sexual abuse and violence, like Ms. Lucio, are more vulnerable to falsely confessing under such coercive conditions. And experts who have reviewed Ms. Lucio’s case, including reviewed her interrogation records, have concluded that Ms. Lucio “was relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” during the interrogation. At 3 a.m., Ms. Lucio said, “I guess I did it,” at 3 a.m. to get the officers to end the interrogation. Her statement was then misconstrued as a confession.

Melissa Lucio has maintained her innocence for 14 years. During her interrogation, she stated more than 80 times that she did not hurt her child, until coerced by police officers.

Before Texas plans to execute Ms. Lucio, Tennessee is planning to execute Oscar Smith, the oldest inmate on Tennessee’s death row at 72 years old, on April 21. Mr. Smith has been on death row since 1990.

Predictably, there are unanswered questions about the evidence used against him and the fairness of the process. On Monday, the Tennessean reported that Mr. Smith’s attorneys have petitioned the court to consider new evidence, demonstrating an unknown person’s DNA is on the murder weapon found at the crime scene where Mr. Smith’s wife, Judy Robird Smith, and her two sons from another marriage, Chad and Jason Burnett were murdered in 1989.

Tennessee has five executions scheduled in 2022, including Mr. Smith’s, more than any other state. Texas is next with four.

In these cases, the same realities become all too clear. Many of the condemned suffered violent abuse and trauma as children at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them. Many have intellectual disability or have developed severe mental illness. And all too often, they were not provided adequate defense during their trials.

In many of the Tennessee cases of those now facing execution and of those already executed, jurors have attested that they did not have an accurate understanding of the sentences the men would receive if not given a death sentence, or they wrongly believed that Tennessee would never carry out the executions. Tennessee did not execute anyone from 1960 to 2000. Jurors also raise the concern that they were not given the option of alternative sentences that juries in Tennessee now have, like life without the possibility of parole, which had yet to become law. In other words, many of those currently scheduled for execution in Tennessee would not receive a death sentence if tried today.

Of course, we can all agree that these are terrible crimes and that surviving family members have suffered immense pain and trauma because of the murder of their loved ones. The hurt is beyond description. But trapping these families in a legal process for decades that only compounds their pain and does not adequately address their financial, emotional, and spiritual need is certainly not the answer. We can do better.

In this month, when people of many faiths celebrate their holiest days, as nature gives way to new life, and as possibility is born, let us seek to honor life, to join together to stop these executions, and to work for a world where the death penalty is no more

Ask Governor Lee to stop the execution of Oscar Smith.

Ask Governor Abbott to stop the execution of Melissa Lucio.

Read the Tennessean story.

Image from Innocence Project