(CN) — Executions in Tennessee have been put on hold for the remainder of the year after Governor Bill Lee on Monday announced plans to launch an independent review of the state’s lethal injection procedure.
The move came less than two weeks after Lee, a Republican, granted a temporary reprieve on April 21 to death row inmate Oscar Franklin Smith “due to an oversight in preparation,” according to a brief statement released by the governor’s office with a little more than an hour to go before Smith was to be executed.
Smith, 72, has been on death row since 1990 for the stabbing and shooting deaths of his estranged wife and her two teenage sons the year before. The oldest inmate on Tennessee’s death row, Smith was one of five inmates the state was set to execute this year, which represented the nation’s highest number of pending executions until Monday’s announcement paused them. The Tennessee Supreme Court will reschedule dates for the 2022 executions.
“I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said on Monday. “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.”
The third-party review will be led by former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton, who will look into the circumstances that led to testing the lethal injection chemicals for Smith’s execution for only potency and sterility but not endotoxins. He will also review the clarity of the lethal injection process manual and Tennessee Department of Correction staffing considerations.
“An investigation by a respected third-party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed,” Lee said in a statement. “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.”
Smith’s execution would have been the state’s first since February 2020 due to disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. While no specific reason has been provided for the oversight that led to a reprieve for Smith, who has always maintained his innocence, his attorney, federal public defender Amy Harwell, told the Associated Press that the issue dealt with the “mishandling” of lethal injection drugs.
Harwell was one of two attorneys from the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee who called on the governor to issue a moratorium on executions in the state “in light of ongoing irregularities with Tennessee’s execution protocol.” The office represents more than half of the inmates on the state’s death row.
“Whatever the ‘oversight’ that led to the necessity of a last-minute reprieve, there can be no trust in the Department of Correction to carry out an execution without first conducting an independent investigation of the execution protocol,” Harwell wrote in an April 28 letter to Lee. “The secrecy that shrouds the execution process in Tennessee is troubling, even more so where now one week later we still don’t know what happened to cause the last-minute delay.”
Tennessee is one of only a handful of states that uses a three-drug lethal execution cocktail of midazolam as a sedative, vecuronium bromide to paralyze the inmate, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
The drugs have been linked to botched executions across the country, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 upheld the use of midazolam in Oklahoma’s three-drug protocol even after the horribly bungled lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in 2014.
Of the five executions scheduled across the country in April, only one was carried out when Texas put Carl Wayne Buntion to death. Smith and Ohio inmate John Drummond were granted reprieves, while the executions of Richard Moore in South Carolina and Melissa Lucio in Texas were stayed.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.