ed stanton

Lee announces next steps after study finds problems with lethal injection protocols

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is outlining his next steps after an independent study found his administration had failed to follow its lethal injection protocols.

Here’s a release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Following a months-long third-party review of lethal injection operations at the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC), Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today announced several decisive actions to ensure the department adheres to established protocol. Additionally, the Governor proactively released the independent investigator’s third-party report to the public.

“I have thoroughly reviewed the findings in the independent investigator’s report and am directing several actions to ensure the Tennessee Department of Correction adheres to proper protocol,” said Gov. Lee. “We are proactively sharing both the third-party report and my administration’s next steps to ensure continued transparency for the people of Tennessee.”

On May 2, 2022, Tennessee retained former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to conduct an independent review and recommend corrective actions, following an oversight in adhering to the TDOC lethal injection protocol. After completing the independent investigation, Stanton delivered the third-party report to the Governor’s office on December 14, 2022. All legally-required redactions were applied by the independent investigator prior to the report’s delivery. The third-party report is publicly-available here.

After an internal assessment of the third-party report, Gov. Lee has directed several proactive steps to ensure TDOC adheres to established protocol, which will occur in the following sequence:

1. Make staffing changes at the department’s leadership level.

2. Hire and onboard a permanent TDOC commissioner in January 2023.

3. New department leadership will revise the state’s lethal injection protocol, in consultation with the Governor’s office and the Tennessee Attorney General’s office.

4. New department leadership will review all training associated with the revised protocol and make appropriate operational updates.

As previously planned, Interim Commissioner Lisa Helton will remain in the role until a permanent commissioner is announced in January 2023. At that time, Helton will continue serving the department as Assistant Commissioner for Community Supervision.

Gov. Lee added, “I commend Interim Commissioner Helton for her steady leadership, which has been particularly important during this time of change and transition at the department, and we are deeply grateful for her continued public service to our state.”

Upon launching the independent investigation in May, Lee issued temporary reprieves for five executions scheduled to take place in 2022. The Tennessee Supreme Court will be responsible for setting new execution dates after the Governor’s reprieves expire. Currently, Tennessee has no scheduled executions in 2023.

Lee halts executions for rest of year, calls for independent review

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is placing a moratorium on executions in Tennessee for the rest of the year to allow for an independent review of lethal injection processes.

Lee had postponed the execution of death row inmate Oscar Smith on April 21 due to an unspecified “oversight in preparation for lethal injection.” The governor’s office has hired former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton of Memphis to oversee the review.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced plans to launch a third-party review of a lethal injection testing oversight that resulted in a temporary reprieve for death row inmate Oscar Franklin Smith.

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

Both the United States Supreme Court and Lee declined to intervene on the merits of Smith’s case, but questions surrounding lethal injection testing preparation for the April 21 execution resulted in a temporary reprieve by the governor.

Tennessee will retain former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to conduct an independent review of the following:

— Circumstances that led to testing the lethal injection chemicals for only potency and sterility but not endotoxins preparing for the April 21 execution.

— Clarity of the lethal injection process manual that was last updated in 2018, and adherence to testing policies since the update.

— TDOC staffing considerations.

“An investigation by a respected third-party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed,” said Lee. “We will pause scheduled executions through the end of 2022 in order to allow for the review and corrective action to be put in place.”

Since 2019, three of four executions have been carried out by electric chair. Death row inmates may choose to be executed by electric chair rather than lethal injection, and lethal injection is the default execution method in Tennessee. The April 21 execution was set to be the first execution since February 2020 due to disruptions caused by COVID-19. This execution was one of five executions scheduled to take place this year. The Tennessee Supreme Court will determine rescheduled dates for the 2022 executions.


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