Tennessee’s 2022 moratorium on executions could last longer

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE. – After Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee stopped a lethal injection in April after learning the drugs hadn’t been tested as required, he ordered an independent investigation and paused all executions until the end of the year.

It is now clear that Tennessee’s problems in following its own lethal injection protocol are more extensive and complicated than state officials have admitted — and it may be longer, possibly years, before an execution that conforms to the constitutional muster can take place.

Many of the issues surfaced during a federal court challenge to the execution process of two death row inmates in Tennessee. The filings show that since executions resumed in 2018, Tennessee has struggled to comply with its own lethal injection rules at almost every step — from drug composition to testing, storage and administration.

Those cases are on hold until the Lee-ordered investigation is completed — but in the meantime, in a May 6 court filing, the attorney general’s office acknowledged that there may be “factual inaccuracies or misstatements” in their previous filing and that corrections will be made “As soon as the truth is established.”


Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said the records showed there had been problems at “virtually every step of the protocol,” and he attributed the problems to “a combination of hubris and incompetence.”

“The large number of problems and depth of problems Tennessee has had in complying with its protocol raises significant questions about the state’s competence to administer the death penalty,” Dunham said.

The governor and the attorney general’s office have not predicted when executions might resume. Dunham said he believes it’s very likely to continue beyond 2022 and could be a year-long hiatus.

The pause in these legal challenges came with a guarantee from the state that officials would not attempt to execute the two plaintiff inmates until the investigations are complete, any necessary changes are made to the state’s record, and the lawsuits are updated to reflect the changes , and Cases are given time to be decided by a federal district judge and then by an appeals committee.


Other inmates’ cases may be affected by the state expected to revise its lethal injection protocolaccording to Kelley Henry of the Federal Office of Public Defense.

Deposits and other records show that multiple parties have contributed to the state’s problems, from the out-of-state pharmacy that supplies the drugs to the state’s execution team. Their problems include missed or fumbling steps to test, store and prepare the chemicals, and a lack of proper execution training.

Two inmates have died from lethal injections since 2018. Lawyers for death row inmates argue in vain that the deadly drugs prolong pain and suffering, say the sedative midazolam incapacitates anyone, and the paralyzing drug vecuronium bromide, then masks their agony, violating constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment. Based on that claim, the other five inmates killed since 2018 have chosen to die in the electric chair rather than take the injections.


Lawyers for the two current death row inmates say in federal court filings that the three drugs used in Donnie Johnson’s May 16, 2019 lethal injection had expired — midazolam, which expired by two weeks, the other two, which expired nearly two Prepared hours in advance Protocol requires them to be used within an hour.

These two drugs were also manufactured about two hours in advance of Billy Ray Irick’s execution in August 2018, causing them to expire then as well. The files also say the pharmacy did not test every drug for endotoxins — tests that could indicate problems in the manufacture of the drugs.

Text messages sent in response to an Associated Press request for public records show that two people involved in preparing Oscar Smith’s scheduled April execution knew about it the evening before there was no endotoxin test this time, either. A halt to executions was only announced about an hour in advance.


Other issues raised in court filings by inmates’ attorneys include the pharmacist not personally mixing the drugs; and the executioner wipes sterile needles with alcohol, uses wrong-size syringes, and fails to visually inspect the prepared syringes to ensure the chemicals are fully dissolved and safe to use.

Other shortcomings include storing the chemicals at the wrong temperatures, keeping expired cans, and providing inadequate training that included reading the protocol and practicing the procedure at sessions the execution team blithely called “tape practice.”

“The transcripts documenting these drill sessions list fictional names of prisoners, including ‘Wild Bill’, ‘Con Demned’, ‘Annie Oakley’, ‘Doc Holliday’, ‘Tom Thumb’, ‘John Henry’ and ‘Billy the Kid’.” a court filing states.

The governor has largely declined to discuss details from the court filings, citing the ongoing investigation.


Edward Stanton, the former US attorney investigating the execution breakdowns, and members of his team are being paid up to $425 an hour for their services.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/13/tennessee-execution-pause-through-2022-could-last-longer/ Tennessee’s 2022 moratorium on executions could last longer

Sarah Y. Kim

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