Tennessee put 7 inmates to death in 18 months before COVID-19 postponed executions

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Billy Ray Irick was the first inmate executed in Tennessee since December of 2009 when Cecil Johnson was put to death. Irick was executed on Aug. 9, 2018, for the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl in 1986.

Just prior to Irick’s execution, Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol faced legal challenges. Thirty-two death row inmates filed a lawsuit claiming the three-drug protocol was so painful it qualified as cruel and unusual punishment, which would be a violation of the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the inmates failed to meet the bar set by the U.S. Supreme Court for death penalty challenges and therefore executions could proceed. Six more did, in less than a year and a half.

On November 1, 2018, 63-year-old double-murderer Edmund Zagorski was put to death. He was the first person in the U.S. to die by electric chair in five years and the first in Tennessee in more than a decade. His lawyer said Zagorski felt electrocution was the lesser of the two evils.

David Earl Miller, the longest-serving inmate on Tennessee’s death row, was also executed by electric chair on Dec. 6, 2018. He was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a Knoxville woman.

About five months later, Donnie Johnson was put to death on May 16, 2019 by lethal injection for killing his wife in 1984.

Stephen West chose the electric chair when he was executed on Aug. 15, 2019. He received the death penalty for murdering a mother and daughter in Union County.

Lee Hall also died by electric chair on Dec. 5, 2019 for the killing of his estranged girlfriend. He was only the second blind inmate in the U.S. to be executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Nicholas Sutton was the final inmate to be put to death in Tennessee before scheduled executions were delayed due to COVID-19. Sutton was convicted of multiple murders and died by the electric chair on Feb. 20, 2020. The executions of Oscar Smith, Byron Black, and Harold Wayne Nichols have been postponed due to the pandemic. Smith and Black’s dates have been rescheduled for 2021. Nichols was issued a reprieve by the governor through the end of the year.

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

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