Rare insight into Attorney General’s role behind Tennessee executions

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Tennessee's Death Row Delayed

NASHVILLE, Tenn., (WKRN) — When an execution is carried out in the state of Tennessee, it is Attorney General Herbert Slatery who meets with the victims’ families.  He takes them through the process, addresses their concerns, and meets them again once the sentence is carried out. 

The AG is also charged with seeing the laws of the state are enforced including carrying out the death penalty.

Slatery sat down with News 2’s Bob Mueller to discuss the role his office plays in capital punishment in Tennessee.

Attorney General Slatery may be in one of the most powerful positions in state government, but his face to many is unfamiliar. “We describe ourselves as the state’s law firm,” said Slatery.

The AG’s office has a hand in virtually every aspect of state government from environmental law to tax law to civil defense and beyond.

It’s also reflective of the current times. “Interestingly, 50% of our lawyers are women, and they form a pretty significant piece of our leadership in our office,” he added, “That would range from department heads, commissioners the governor to legislative leaders.”

The AG’s office is also behind life and death decisions. “Well, capital cases starting out that is probably the most somber, sobering, difficult cases that we handle in our offices, and we take it very seriously.”

Scheduling executions is mandated of the office when a three-tiered appeal process is complete.

“Frankly, we don’t have a lot of discretion when that appellate process is finished,” Slatery said. “Then there is a Supreme Court rule that specifically says the Attorney General shall file a motion to set an execution date requesting the Supreme Court to set the date.”

After a 40-year hiatus, Tennessee resumed executions in 2000 putting to death six inmates over ten years.  

Shortly after, a legal challenge of the drugs used in lethal injections halted executions until August of 2018. When they resumed, seven executions took place in only 18 months.

“We are the advocate for the State, and so, our primary charge is to see that the law is enforced,” Slatery explained. “And so, the people of Tennessee have spoken pretty clearly that the death penalty is warranted in certain situations.” He explained further, “And until that law is changed, we are the advocate. We are pushing to have a have that statue enforced and the sentence carried out.”

Critics accused the AG’s office of speeding up the process. Slatery said a long backlog of cases reached the point where execution dates were required by law to be set. “The Supreme Court has total authority on setting the date. We have no discretion in that. So, when we finish that appeal process, I’m really not sitting in my office thinking ‘well do we slow walk this one or let me look at the facts of this one.’” Slatery continued, “We don’t go through any process like that… we file the motion because that is what the court told us to do.”

Attorney General Slatery argued against COVID-19 and possible health concerns of prison staff, witnesses, other inmates as a reason to delay executions.  The State Supreme Court disagreed and temporarily halted executions in Tennessee.

Slatery points to victims of these crimes who sometimes have to wait decades to see justice. “They have to live with it every day. And for 30 years, that is not any kind of swift justice that’s for sure.”

Slatery is an advocate for keeping the victims of these crimes top of mind. “I just think of the horror that those victims went through. I mean they are horrific crimes.”

The next scheduled execution in Tennessee is set for December pending further appeals.

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