NASHVILLE, Tenn., (WKRN) – The COVID-19 Pandemic brought an abrupt halt to Tennessee executions this year. However, one was rescheduled for December while two others are reset for early 2021.
Governor Bill Lee gave one death row inmate a reprieve from this year, but only until the end of this year. Tennessee last executed a death row inmate when the state had barely noticed COVID-19. A man convicted of four murders named Nicholas Sutton died in Tennessee’s electric chair February 20th.
A week later a question about COVID-19 at a legislative gun bill introduction drew chuckles from many lawmakers, but not Governor Lee. Those faces around him on February 27th then turned serious at what the governor said about COVID-19 back last winter.
“It’s important that we track this and that is why we have daily interaction with health officials and federal officials,” said Gov. Lee. After pausing, he added, “We are very concerned about it.”
Concern also came from the lawyers for inmates on Tennessee’s death row. In a flurry of filings during the next few months, they argued an execution has no place in a pandemic.
“Many states have postponed because of COVID,” said Kelley Henry of the Federal Public Defenders Office which handles death cases on appeal.
Her office argued in those filings that death row attorneys can’t do their jobs with all the people they need to speak to in an appeal.
“What if you are going to give them COVID,” she asked during a recent interview with WKRN-TV.
“What if they are going to give you COVID ,and you are going to take it home to your family. There are all of these risks out there.” The Tennessee State Supreme Court postponed two executions after appeals from the death row attorneys.
In the ruling for Byron Lewis Black, the justices cited the death row inmate’s lawyers who argued “The COVID-19 restrictions impede his ability to complete testing necessary to support his petition and to ensure the availability of the requisite experts.” The order then set Black’s execution date for April 8th, 2021.
Two months earlier, the State Supreme Court reset Oscar Franklin Smith’s execution date for February 4th, 2021. The court stated in its order that “Mr. Smith has filed a motion to stay his execution due to the COIVID-19.”
In one case, Governor Lee intervened earlier this year in a death penalty case with COVID-19 listed as a reason for the reprieve until the end of the year for Harold Wayne Nichols.
“There were specific reasons why that reprieve was requested, and you look at those and they were connected to the situation at the time in April, May and June,” said Gov. Lee on September 29th when asked about upcoming executions.
It came after the Tennessee justices said “The state asserts that the Governor may grant a reprieve if persuaded the COVID-19 pandemic has impeded Mr. Nichols’ ability to prepare a clemency petition.”
Governor Lee was persuaded then, but what about further death row reprieves or clemency petitions asking for mercy because of COVID-19?
“We don’t know what December looks like relative to today,” added Gov. Lee on September 29th. “We’ll just evaluate it when it comes.”
On issues besides COVID-19, Governor Lee has been asked to delay the scheduled December 3rd execution of West Tennessean Pervis Payne. His lawyers argue Payne is “intellectually disabled.” They also hope DNA evidence casts doubt on Payne’s original murder conviction.
See more of News 2’s in-depth coverage of “Death Row Delayed”