Inmates Are a High Risk for COVID Transmission, but a Low Priority for Tennessee

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, which houses Tennessee’s death row

Federal public defenders Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell on Thursday called on Gov. Bill Lee to issue a moratorium on state executions.

Lee issued a last-minute reprieve for death row inmate Oscar Smith on April 21, less than two hours before the state was scheduled to kill Smith. The execution has been postponed, and many unknowns still exist about the exact circumstances surrounding the last-minute decision.

Faith leaders and advocates joined Smith’s lawyers Thursday at a press conference, including the Rev. Davie Tucker and Stacy Rector of Tennesseans Against the Death Penalty. Former Scene reporter Steven Hale spoke about the trauma of witnessing a state execution.

Speakers pointed out how the process is opaque and key details are inaccessible to the public, including the sources of the three drugs used for Tennessee's lethal injection protocol. The cocktail includes a paralytic that veils victims’ physical responses to the injection.

Harwell criticized the lack of controls surrounding lethal injection, which is dependent on highly unstable chemicals. The governor has remained quiet around exactly what protocols were violated, issuing a statement last week saying only that there was “an oversight in preparation for lethal injection.” Harwell and Henry argued that too many mistakes and too little information exists for the Gov. Lee to continue executions without stronger guarantees for Tennesseans.

“We have yet to receive confirmation that the drugs passed any sort of quality testing,” said Harwell.

The press conference characterized state killings as barbaric, outdated and riddled with potential complications.  

“Even if it works exactly as intended, it is torture,” said Henry, lead defense attorney and chief of the Capital Habeas Unit in the federal defender’s office. 

According to Henry, it appears as though the drugs used to execute Don Johnson did not meet quality standards. Johnson was killed by the state of Tennessee in 2019.

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