Tennessee

Tennessee

In Act of ‘Christian Forgiveness,’ Tennessee Victim’s Daughter Asks Governor for Mercy for Her Mother’s Killer

A Tennessee murder victim’s daughter is asking Governor Bill Lee to honor their shared faith by sparing the life of her mother’s killer. In what they describe as an “exceptional” clemency plea, lawyers for Tennessee death-row prisoner Don Johnson (pictured) write that Cynthia Vaughn, the daughter of Connie Johnson, has requested a meeting with Gov. Lee to tell him her story of “Christian forgiveness” and ask that he commute Johnson’s sentence to life without parole. The clemency petition describes such a request as extremely rare, saying “[w]e know of only one other case in the history of the State of Tennessee in which the child of the ultimate victim has begged the Governor for mercy for the murderer – and in that case clemency was granted to Gaile Owens.” Johnson’s clemency petition also stresses his remorse and redemption, explaining that he has become an Ordained Elder in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and now ministers to his fellow prisoners. Vaughn and Johnson’s lawyers hope his story of Christian redemption will be of particular interest to Gov. Lee, whose campaign for governor in 2018 repeatedly emphasized his Christian faith.

In a letter to Governor Lee that is excerpted in the petition, Vaughn describes her change of heart about Johnson. For most of her life, she supported his execution, publicly saying, “I want the freak to burn.” However, in 2012, she sought a meeting with Johnson in prison to tell him about the pain he had caused her. “After I was finished telling him about all the years of pain and agony he had caused, I sat down and heard a voice. The voice told me, ‘That’s it, let it go.’ The next thing that came out of my mouth changed my life forever. I looked at him, told him I couldn't keep hating him because it was doing nothing but killing me instead of him, and then I said, ‘I forgive you.’” Forgiving Johnson, she said, has freed her from her anger and allowed her to live her life more fully. “Letting go of anger has let me love more,” she wrote.

Johnson’s religious conversion is the subject of much of the clemency petition and includes numerous testimonials about the positive effect he has had on other prisoners. It also details his personal journey from the routine beatings and psychological abuse he endured from his father and in the juvenile justice system to what the petition characterizes as his religious redemption. "What is most remarkable about Don Johnson’s life story is not that he ended up on death row following a loveless and hate filled childhood, it is that he overcame that childhood to become the man of God he is today," his petition states. Prison ministers and volunteers wrote in support of clemency, describing Johnson’s remorse and his impact on the lives of others. “Don has asked for forgiveness of his sins and crimes he committed years ago and by the grace of God has become a new person in Christ,” wrote Linda Faulk, a prison volunteer who has known him since 2004. “Donnie is no ordinary person and he has unusual perceptivity. I am aware that the prison uses his talents as a counselor and his unit has one of the best behavioral records in the State of Tennessee. Many people rejoice that he has served so well in spite of his environmental circumstances,” said Dr. John L. DuBosque, a visitor and telephone advisor of Johnson’s since 1998. Johnson’s petition concludes with a plea for a grant of mercy by the governor: “Cynthia Vaughn, the person with the greatest claim on his life, deserves to have her forgiveness honored. She should not have her own healing journey ended with an unnecessary and unwanted execution. Don Johnson should not have his journey from the darkness into the light ended in the death chamber.”

Lawyers Seek Clemency for Tennessee Death-Row Prisoner Dying of End-Stage Cancer

Charles Wright (pictured), a prisoner on Tennessee’s death row, may die of cancer before the October 10, 2019 execution date that the state has set for him. His attorneys and supporters, including a former U.S. Congressman, are seeking clemency so Wright can spend his final days with his family. Wright has prostate cancer that has spread to his bones, and was recently moved from Tennessee’s death-row facility to a prison infirmary. He is asking the governor to either reduce his sentence to time served or to life without parole, allowing him to apply for a medical furlough, a special release that can be granted to terminally ill prisoners, but not to those on death row.

In September 2018, former Congressman Bob Clement wrote to then-Governor Bill Haslam, asking Haslam to grant clemency to Wright. “It is clear to me that Charles is not among the ‘worst of the worst’ for whom the ultimate punishment is to be reserved,” Clement wrote. “He was a product of his environment and the deprivation in which he — I will not say ‘was raised’ as the fact is, Charles and his siblings basically raised themselves. He turned to drugs early in his teenage years — he was fourteen or fifteen when an older drug dealer put a heroin needle in Charles’ arm. Charles does not absolve himself of his responsibility for making wrong choices.” Clement’s father, Frank Clement, served as governor of Tennessee in the 1960s, and commuted all the state’s death sentences in 1965, after the legislature defeated an abolition bill by one vote.

In court filings, Wright’s attorneys also raised issues of arbitrariness and racial bias. Wright, who is Black, was convicted and sentenced to death for a drug-related double-homicide in 1985. According to his attorneys, capital cases in the 1980s were infected with racial bias, and Wright’s case exemplifies the arbitrariness of Tennessee’s death penalty. While Wright was sentenced to death, many other drug-related murders have resulted in life sentences, even when there were more than two victims. A 2018 study of Tennessee's death-penalty system called it “a cruel lottery” and found that the best indicators of whether a case would result in a death sentence were arbitrary factors such as where the murder occurred, the race of the defendant, the quality of the defense, and the views of the prosecutors and judges assigned to the case.

Tennessee Executes Mentally Ill and Sexually Abused Prisoner by Electrocution

Tennessee executed David Earl Miller (pictured at age 24) in the state’s electric chair on December 6, 2018, after Governor Bill Haslam denied his application for clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to address the denials of his challenges to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s execution methods. Miller, a 61-year-old man with a significant history of mental illness who experienced extensive sexual and physical abuse as a child, opted to be executed by electric chair after the Tennessee Supreme Court denied other prisoners’ challenges to a three-drug lethal-injection process that Miller and his lawyers believed would result in an extended torturous death.

The Tennessee prisoners challenged the state’s three-drug lethal-injection process, seeking to replace it with execution with a single barbiturate, pentobarbital. Miller presented evidence that the three-drug protocol would result in approximately 18 minutes of unnecessary pain and suffering. He submitted an affidavit from one of the nation’s leading anesthesiologists that Billy Ray Irick “was aware and sensate” during his lethal-injection execution on October 11, 2018 “and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” The prisoners’ challenge was rejected because Miller—prevented from obtaining critical information by Tennessee’s execution secrecy law—was unable to show that pentobarbital was readily available to the state. Miller elected to be executed in the electric chair, but argued that his choice of electrocution instead of lethal injection was coerced and that both methods were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. The lower courts ruled that Miller had waived his challenge to constitutionality of the electric chair by choosing it over lethal injection, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “electrocution can be a dreadful way to die,” but there was “credible scientific evidence that lethal injection as currently practiced in Tennessee may well be even worse.” It was “perverse,” she said, to require prisoners to prove that an alternative method was available to kill them. “Such madness should not continue.”

Miller was charged with murdering his intellectually-disabled girlfriend, Lee Standifer, in May 1981. He was 24 years old at the time. Miller’s attorneys submitted an 89-page clemency petition to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam detailing Miller’s upbringing and childhood abuse, including an instance in which Miller’s stepfather “knocked [Miller] out of a chair, hit him with a board, threw him into a refrigerator with such force it dented the refrigerator and bloodied [Miller’s] head, dragged him through the house by his hair, and twice ran [Miller’s] head through the wall.” Miller’s mother, who drank heavily while he was in utero, sexually abused Miller and forced him to have sex with her on at least three occasions. The document also noted that Miller attempted suicide two times before age ten. Governor Haslam denied the petition with a one-sentence statement: “After careful consideration of David Earl Miller’s clemency request, I am declining to intervene in this case.”

Following the execution, Miller’s lawyer Steve Kissinger said: “If any of you have been reading what we've been submitting to the governor, what we have been sending to the courts for the last 20 years you'll know that he cared deeply for Lee Standifer and she would be alive today if it weren't for a sadistic stepfather and a mother who violated every trust that a son should have. I came up here promising to tell you what we did here today, but I think maybe what I should be doing is ask you all that question. What is it that we did here today?”

Miller is the second death-row prisoner to be executed by electrocution in Tennessee this year. Edmund Zagorski, executed by electrocution on November 1, 2018, was the first. Miller’s last words were “beats being on death row.”

Tennessee Supreme Court Sets Six Execution Dates for 2019 and 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court has set execution dates for six men on the state's death row, scheduling their executions for between May 16, 2019 and April 9, 2020. This mass execution schedule, issued on November 16, 2018, comes in the wake of the controversial executions of Billy Ray Irick and Edmund Zagorski earlier this year and as the state prepares to execute David Earl Miller on December 6. If all seven scheduled executions take place, Tennessee will have conducted more executions in a two-year period than it had in the rest of the 45-year modern era of the death penalty.

Prior to Irick's August 9, 2018 execution, Tennessee had carried out only six executions since bringing back the death penalty in February 1974, all of them between 2000 and 2009. Tennessee's execution method and the state supreme court's handling of lethal-injection litigation has come under criticism, as a newly constituted conservative court majority permitted prison officials to refuse to provide evidence of their claimed efforts to obtain an alternative execution drug, expedited its consideration of death-row state prisoners' challenge to the state three-drug lethal-injection protocol to facilitate Zagorski’s execution, and refused to consider medical evidence concerning Irick’s reportedly torturous execution.

Irick was executed over scathing dissents from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who called it “barbarism,” and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee, who criticized the state's “rush to execute” and said that the state’s evasion of questions concerning the availability of pentobarbital as an alternative to execution with the state’s three-drug formula had rendered the trial court proceedings in the case “meaningless.” Lee later blasted the “rocket docket” created by the court’s removal of the prisoners’ lethal-injection challenge from an intermediate appeals court so the high court could decide the case before Zagorski's scheduled execution. “Given the gravity of the issues presented in this appeal, the voluminous record to be reviewed, and the legal analysis to be made, the [court’s] super-expedited schedule is wholly inadequate,” she wrote.

Autopsy reports from Irick’s execution became available after the court established its expedited schedule. Edmund Zagorski’s defense lawyers then provided the court with an affidavit from a prominent medical expert who concluded that Irick had not been properly anesthetized, leaving him “aware and sensate during his execution.” Irick “would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride,” the doctor wrote. After hearing argument, the court refused to consider that medical evidence and upheld the execution protocol. Zagorski then opted to be executed by electrocution. His attorney said of the decision, “[Tennessee] has coerced Mr. Zagorski — with the threat of extreme chemical torture via a barbaric three-drug lethal injection protocol — to choose to die a painful and gruesome death in the electric chair.” The day before the new execution dates were announced, a federal judge denied a stay request from David Earl Miller, who had sought execution by firing squad as an alternative to the three-drug lethal injection.

Attorneys Challenge Tennessee's “Utterly Barbaric” Planned Use of Electric Chair

As Edmund Zagorski faces a November 1, 2018 execution in Tennessee, the courts have required him to choose between death by lethal injection and electrocution. His lawyers argue that both methods, as well as the forced choice between the two, are unconstitutional. In a lawsuit filed in federal district court on October 26, 2018 and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on October 30, Zagorski’s attorney, Kelley Henry, wrote of electrocution, “while better than lethal injection, such a death is still utterly barbaric,” alleging that it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit claims that Tennessee’s electric chair is “incompetently designed,” and that Zagorski will suffer as electrocution “burns Mr. Zagorski’s skin from his skull, boils his blood and fails to promptly stop his heart and brain function.” Describing Tennessee’s three-drug midazolam-based execution as one in which “the prisoner [will feel] as if he is ‘drowning, suffocating, and being burned alive from the inside out’ during a process that could last as long as 18 minutes,” Henry argues that the state “has coerced Mr. Zagorski — with the threat of extreme chemical torture via a barbaric three-drug lethal injection protocol — to choose to die a painful and gruesome death in the electric chair.”

Henry also argues that Tennessee has unconstitutionally forced Zagorski to choose between execution by lethal injection with midazolam and death by electrocution, while employing state secrecy laws to prevent him from obtaining information necessary to prove that a less painful one-drug lethal injection with pentobaritol was available. Quoting Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s dissent from the Supreme Court’s October 11 refusal to hear Zagorski’s prior lethal-injection challenge, Zagorski argued “‘[w]hen the prisoners tasked with asking the State to kill them another way are denied by the State information crucial to establishing the availability of that other means of killing, a grotesque requirement has become Kafkaesque as well.’”

Zagorski’s execution was originally scheduled for October 11, but Governor Bill Haslam issued a temporary reprieve to give prison officials time to prepare for an execution by electric chair. On October 29, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger rejected Zagorski’s challenge to the electric chair, but issued a temporary restraining order preventing the execution from going forward unless the state provides his lawyers with access to a telephone to contact the court if something goes wrong during the execution. On October 31, Zagorski filed a motion for stay of execution in the federal appeals court and both sides filed briefs on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s electrocution protocol. It is expected that whichever side loses in the appeals court will seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

A February 2015 poll conducted by YouGuv found that Americans, by a 21 percentage-point margin (54% vs. 33%), consider the electric chair cruel and unusual punishment. The states that used the electric chair moved to lethal injection in the wake of several gruesomely botched electrocutions, decisions by the Georgia and Nebraska Supreme Courts declaring electric-chair executions unconstitutional, and a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision agreeing to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Florida’s use of the electric chair. That challenge was later rendered moot when Florida abandoned executions by electrocution. Tennessee last carried out an execution in its electric chair in 2007.

Governor Rejects Jurors’ Plea for Clemency for Edmund Zagorski as Tennessee Court Allows Lethal Injections to Proceed

Ignoring declarations by six jurors in Edmund Zagorski’s 1984 trial that they would have spared Zagorski (pictured) if they could have sentenced him to life without parole, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam rejected Zagorski’s petition for clemency on October 5, 2018. In conjunction with the Tennessee Supreme Court's October 8 ruling upholding the constitutionality of the state's lethal-injection protocol, Haslam’s decision moved the state closer to executing Zagorski on October 11. At the time of Zagorski’s trial, Tennessee law required jurors in death-penalty cases to choose between sentencing a defendant to death or risk the possibility that he could later be released on parole. The jurors in Zagorski’s case submitted sworn declarations in support of clemency, saying that they would have sentenced him to life without possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty, if they had been given the no-parole option. Juror Michael Poole told Nashville Scene, “Our concern was that at some point in time maybe this man would be released and could actually be out in society and commit such a crime again. ... [Zagorski] has paid a significant price up to this point, I feel, and the continuation of his imprisonment until he dies of natural causes I think is punishment enough.” Nancy Arnold, another juror, agreed. “[A]s far as the law was concerned, all we could do was what we did. We had no choice of life without parole. I would have definitely done that if it had been available.” Zagorski’s clemency plea was also supported by correctional officials who said he has been a model prisoner and has reformed during his 34 years on death row. Despite those statements, Gov. Haslam denied clemency, writing that “the jury in Zagorski’s case heard the evidence at trial and rendered a unanimous verdict in accordance with the law at the time and their duty as jurors. Ten courts, including the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States, have reviewed and upheld the jury’s verdict and sentence, and the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the addition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option does not affect previous verdicts.” The Tennessee Supreme Court on October 8 also removed a hurdle to Zagorski’s execution, ruling 4-1 that Tennessee's lethal-injection protocol is constitutional, and that prisoners did not prove an alternative was available, as required. In response to that ruling, Zagorski requested that the state execute him with the electric chair, saying, “I do not want to be subjected to the torture of the current lethal injection method.” In a statement, Zagorski’s lawyer, assistant federal defender Kelley Henry, said the Tennessee high court decision had left Zagorski to choose between “two unconstitutional methods of execution.” Describing the prospect of “10-18 minutes of drowning, suffocation, and chemical burning” as “unspeakable,” Henry said Zagorski found the electric chair to be “the lesser of two evils.” Zagorski is appealing the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision.

Tennessee Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Lethal-Injection Protocol

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 3, 2018 of an appeal brought by 32 death-row prisoners challenging the constitutionality of the state's execution protocol. In a move criticized by one of the court's justices as a “rocket docket,” the court removed the case from a lower court and set argument for one week before Tennessee's scheduled October 11 execution of Edmund Zagorski. Previously, the court denied a stay of execution to Billy Ray Irick, allowing him to be executed before the lethal-injection issues were resolved. Arguing for the prisoners, assistant federal defenders Kelley Henry and Dana Hansen Chavis told the court that “unassailable science” shows that midazolam, the first drug used in Tennessee executions, is insufficient to block the intense pain caused by the second and third drugs. The prisoners asked the court to consider medical evidence from Irick’s execution that Irick had been conscious while experiencing the torturous effects of the vecuronium bromide injected to induce paralysis and the potassium chloride used to stop his heart. Witnesses to Irick’s execution reported that he choked, moved his head, and strained his forearms against restraints while being put to death. The prisoners offered a sworn statement from Dr. David Lubarsky, one of the nation’s leading anesthesiologists, who offered an opinion “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty” that Irick “was aware and sensate during his execution and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” “If the Eighth Amendment means anything,” Henry argued, “then the court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs.” Much of the argument focused on the requirement imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court that before a state’s chosen execution method can be declared unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, prisoners must prove that some other constitutionally-acceptable method is available to execute them. The Tennessee prisoners proposed that the state could switch to a one-drug protocol using pentobarbital, which both Georgia and Texas have recently used in carrying out executions. Alternatively, they suggested that Tennessee drop the paralytic drug from the execution process, citing testimony that its inclusion causes additional, unnecessary pain. Tennessee’s lawyers argued that the state had made a “diligent effort” to obtain pentobarbital but none of the approximately 100 suppliers the Tennessee Department of Correction contacted would provide the drug for use in executions. Associate Solicitor General Jennifer Smith provided no explanation for why suppliers refused the sale but said that “[t]he state bears no burden at all” to prove that the drug was unavailable. In an admission that countered one of the frequent claims of execution proponents, Smith said there was no evidence death penalty opponents had interfered with the state’s efforts to obtain the drug. In response to questions from Justice Holly Kirby about the prisoners’ burden of proving that the state could obtain pentobarbital, Henry explained that the state’s refusal to provide any information on its efforts created “procedural roadblocks” to proving that point. Justice Sharon Lee appeared to support the prisoners’ position on transparency, asking Smith how the state could fairly demand that the prisoners “prove what they can’t possibly prove because they can’t get the records.” A motion to stay Zagorski execution is pending before the court, and it is unclear whether the court will rule on the merits of the appeal before his execution date. An application for clemency has also been filed and is under review by Governor Bill Haslam.

Medical Expert: Billy Ray Irick Tortured to Death in Tennessee Execution

Billy Ray Irick (pictured) was tortured to death during his August 9, 2018 execution in Tennessee, according to one the nation's leading anesthesiologists. In an affidavit submitted to the Tennessee Supreme Court on September 6 as part of an appeal filed by state death-row prisoners challenging Tennessee’s execution process, anesthesiologist Dr. David Lubarsky, the Vice Chancellor for Human Health Sciences at the University of California-Davis Health, said Irick was not properly anesthetized during his execution and experienced the torturous effects of the second and third lethal-injection drugs while still conscious. Lubarsky, who previously testified during a lower court hearing on the prisoners’ lethal-injection challenge, examined witness descriptions of Irick's execution and concluded “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty” that Irick “was aware and sensate during his execution and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” Witnesses reported that Irick choked, moved his head, and strained his forearms against restraints, all of which, Dr. Lubarsky said, are signs that he was able to feel the effects of the drugs. Lubarsky also noted that prison officials taped Irick's hands—a step unnecessary to the execution because Irick’s wrists were already restrained—preventing witnesses from observing movements of the fingers and hands that would have been “a clear indicator” that he was not anesthetized. The second and third drugs used in Tennessee are known to be excruciatingly painful if a prisoner is not fully unconscious. A court pleading filed by Kelley Henry, an attorney representing Tennessee’s death-row prisoners in their legal challenge to the execution protocol, graphically described the execution process. “This case is about whether it is constitutional to inject a human with a small bottle of acid—which will destroy the lining of their lungs and cause them to drown in blood—and then to inject them with a paralytic that will leave them conscious but expressionless—unable to speak or scream—feeling as if they are buried alive, and finally to stop their heart with an injection that will, in their last minute of life, cause them to chemically burn alive.” Prior to Irick’s execution, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from a denial of a stay, writing, “In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the Court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody, while shrouding his suffering behind a veneer of paralysis.” Records from Irick’s execution also indicate that the state violated its own execution protocol by failing to prepare an additional dose of midazolam, the drug used to sedate him. New filings in the lethal-injection suit said that the state’s actions showed that the “protocol is meaningless” and “creates a substantial risk of severe pain and suffering.” Tennessee prosecutors filed a response on September 13 asking the court not to consider Lubarsky's declaration, saying his opinion was based on hearsay and hadn't been subject to cross-examination. The Tennessee high court has removed the case from the state’s intermediate appellate court and set an expediting briefing schedule, an unusual move that Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee criticized as a “rocket docket” that undermines the possibility of meaningful appellate review. On September 14, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an order deferring a ruling until after oral argument on the appeal of the lethal injection challenge on October 3.

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