Lethal injection debate drags on in Tennessee

Special Reports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Debate over whether Tennessee’s execution method of lethal injection is humane has dragged on for years.

Forty-nine men and one woman were waiting on death row in 2020. In some cases, defense lawyers like Kelley Henry fight for their clients’ lives.

Henry’s team argued the appetite for death sentences is decreasing.

Tennessee adopted lethal injection, also called the “three drug protocol” in 2018. A number of states sought a new method after a Florida prisoner caught fire in the electric chair. 

Lethal injection, the state argued, is more humane. Henry disagreed with the state’s position, suggesting autopsies revealed a different reality.

“It’s really chemical waterboarding,” Henry said, “And the problem is, we can’t see that, because they’re not able to vocalize what’s happening to them.”

Henry took the case to chancery court. Hers was the first team of lawyers to present evidence of a waterboarding effect. While the evidence was not denied, a judge ruled lethal injection constitutional.

In accordance with a Supreme Court ruling, defense attorneys who object to a method of execution must present an alternative option.

The discussions haunt defense attorneys like Henry.

“All we can do is say, ‘Here are two methods. One is literally going to set every fiber of your body on fire and you’re going to feel like you’re burning alive from the inside, we don’t know for how long,’” Henry said, “‘Or this other way, where you’re going to feel like you’re being waterboarded.’”

If death row inmates do not choose a method of execution, they are subject to lethal injection.

Some of Tennessee’s cases have sought review by the Supreme Court, but the Court has chosen not to hear them. Tennessee’s attorney general’s office points to the high Court’s rulings for precedence.

Between 2008 and 2019 Supreme Court justices took on a number of challenges related to lethal injection. In all cases, the Court ruled petitioners failed to meet the burden of proof that lethal injection is cruel and unusual.

Under the Constitution, those sentenced to die are not entitled to a painless death.

Some of Henry’s colleagues have proposed alternative execution methods including a firing squad or gas mask. The attorney said she believes capital punishment is an issue for the legislature.

“The way we allow our government to extinguish the life of another human citizen reflects on us,” Henry said, “We should care about how we as a country treat each other. This is the greatest democracy on the planet, and part of the reason for that is because the people in this country are good and decent human beings.”

Most recently, a federal lawsuit sought to challenge lethal injection. The Supreme Court turned the case down in June.

See more of News 2’s in-depth coverage of “Death Row Delayed”

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