Tennessee Forging Ahead…In the Wrong Direction

The state of Tennessee appears poised to go forth with the scheduled executions of Pervis Payne on Decmeber 12 and Paul Dennis Reid on January 3. However, it is likely that federal courts or the United States Supreme Court will intervene as has been the case thus far. The US Supreme Court recently took a case in Kentucky (read more HERE about Baez v Rees) to rule on the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocols. The current protocol’s three drug cocktail, which is implemented in Tennessee, poses a major risk of a very painful execution. The first drug administered, sodium thiopental, is a barbiturate that elicits unconsciousness of the inmate. The second drug, pancuronium bromide or pavulon, paralyzes the inmate. The third drug, potassium chloride, induces cardiac arrest. The problem is that current protocols do not require for a check of consciousness between the administration of the 2nd and 3rd drug. If the barbiturate has worn off, the inmate could be conscious when the potassium chloride hits their veins, causing an extreme burning sensation and eventually stopping his heart (while still conscious).

However, as profiled in this Nashville Scene article by Sarah Kelley, the state of Tennessee is not phased by this growing national concern. “I have not put any stop to them, and our own Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional,” Bredesen told reporters following a speaking engagement at the Marriott in Cool Springs earlier this month. “My current intention is to proceed ahead with processing what Tennessee law says you’re supposed to do.”

For once, can we please look like a state that is proactive in death penalty public policy. Actually, I’ll take that last statement back as Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that the current lethal injection protocols were unconstitutional. This issue is being looked at by the highest court in the land and yet the state of Tennessee continues to press on even as one of its highest judges dissents. Gov. Bredesen could just as easily stay these executions until the Supreme Court rules, but I guess it would be too logical to afford these inmates, the lawyers and judges involved a break in the legal process. The Governor himself acknowledges that the federal courts will most likely intervene. “I don’t know that for sure yet, but it’s sure looking that way,” Governor Bredesen said. Puzzling.

TCASK’s Stacy Rector was also quoted in the article. “I think there is uncertainty, and as much as I’d love to say we can count on no executions at least until the spring, I don’t think we can say that,” says Stacy Rector, director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. “You can’t let your guard down too much because things are changing every day.”

Things are certainly changing. Although the US Supreme Court will rule on the protocols and at some point executions will go forth, lethal injection is a small part of the overall policy of the death penalty and it is under high scrutiny. It is only a matter of time until all of the troubling issues of the death penalty will be under high scrutiny as well.

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