review

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.