Tennessee Supreme Court Contemplates Electric Chair Appeal on 25th Anniversary of Botched Florida Electrocution

The week of the 25th anniversary of Florida's gruesome botched electric chair execution of Jesse Tafero (pictured), the Tennessee Supreme Court began hearing a challenge to the administration of a state law that would resurrect the use of that State's electric chair if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. On May 6, 2015, the Tennessee justices heard argument on death-row inmates' right to know which method of execution will be used in their cases.  The Justices voiced concerns about the secrecy that the law allows to shield the execution process and the decision about which method to use. "How are the defendants supposed to know?" Justice Cornelia A. Clark asked, offering a hypothetical situation in which an inmate expects to be executed by lethal injection until he sees the electric chair set up in the execution chamber. Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith argued that execution by electric chair is "just not going to happen," but Chief Justice Sharon Lee said that the inmates' evidence regarding the unavailability of execution drugs suggests, "execution (by the electric chair) is very probable."  On May 4, 1990, witnesses to Tafero's execution reported that a problem with Florida's electric chair caused foot-high flames to shoot from Tafero's head. Current had to be applied three times because the first two shocks failed to kill him.

Tennessee Supreme Court Suspends Executions

On April 10, the Tennessee Supreme Court canceled the execution dates for all four Tennessee death-row inmates currently under death warrant, and returned their cases to the lower courts to address the inmates' challenges to the state's lethal injection procedures. The executions had been scheduled for October 2015 through March 2016. Tennessee has not carried out an execution since 2009, but the state announced in 2013 that it would switch from a three-drug lethal injection protocol to a one-drug protocol using pentobarbital. Because of difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs, Tennessee also passed a law in 2014 permitting the use of the electric chair if lethal injection drugs are not available. A group of inmates are currently challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee's lethal injection protocol as constituting cruel and unusual punishment, and the inmates have also challenged the State's use of the electric chair.  The Tennessee Supreme Court is expected to decide soon if it will review the inmates' challenges to the electric chair.

Tennessee Governor Signs Forced Electrocution Bill

On May 22, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that will allow the state to use the electric chair in executions if lethal injection drugs are not available. While seven states, including Tennessee, allow inmates to choose the electric chair as their method of execution, no other state forces inmates to be executed by that method. Defense attorney David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee's death penalty law in the 1970s, said that changing the execution method retroactively would be unconstitutional. Inmates might also raise challenges to electrocution under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Executions by electric chair have resulted in inmates bleeding and catching fire, and some have required multiple jolts of electricity before death occurred. Since 1976, 158 people have been executed by the electric chair. The last use of the electric chair in Tennessee was in 2007, when Daryl Holton chose electrocution over lethal injection. Read the text of the bill here.

NEW VOICES: Another Conservative Leader Challenges the Death Penalty

In an op-ed in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tennessean Drew Johnson evoked conservatives' intentions to "protect innocent life, promote financial responsibility and support government programs that really work" in criticizing the death penalty. Johnson, a Senior Fellow at Taxpayers Protection Alliance and founder of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, cited the many exonerations from death row as another reason to challenge capital punishment: "Life is too precious to rely on mistake-prone processes like the death penalty." He noted that the Tennessee Comptroller's Office's found capital trials to be 48% more expensive than life-without-parole trials. Finally, relying on the conservative value of limited government, he concluded, "My view of limited government is not giving the state the power to kill American citizens. There is nothing limited about that authority....It's time that conservative Tennesseans begin to look at the death penalty to consider whether it's consistent with our view of the role of government and decide if retribution and revenge is worth sacrificing our principles, freedoms and liberties." Read the full op-ed below.

LETHAL INJECTION: Many States Changing Lethal Injection Process

On October 4, Ohio announced it will be obtaining its execution drug, pentobarbital, from a compounding pharmacy if it is not available from the manufacturer. Texas made a similar announcement a few days earler. In the past, some compounding pharmacies have been implicated in providing contaminated drugs with fatal side effects. These local companies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Florida announced it will be using a new drug, midazolam, in its October 15 execution. The drug will be part of a 3-drug process and has never been used before in executions. The 3-drug process can be extremely painful if the first drug is not completely effective. Missouri intends to be the first state in the country to use the drug propofol in its October 23 execution, despite the fact that the drug company that delivered the drug has asked for its return. If Missouri goes ahead with the execution, European countries may impose restrictions on the exportation of this drug, thereby affecting other uses for vital surgeries in the U.S.  Finally, Tennessee will now use only a single drug, pentobarbital, in its executions, though it did not say where it hoped to obtain the drug.

NEW VOICES: Retiring Federal Judge Condemns Death Penalty as Biased and Broken

Judge Boyce Martin took the occasion of his final death-penalty decision from the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals to sharply criticize capital punishment in this country. While upholding the conviction and death sentence of the defendant, Harold Nichols, Judge Martin said, “I continue to condemn the use of the death penalty as an arbitrary, biased, and broken criminal justice tool.” He noted that the many years since Nichols’s conviction in 1990 have consumed "countless judicial hours, money, legal resources, and providing no closure for the families of the victims.” He added that resources spent on the death penalty could be better used for other programs: “The time, money, and energy spent trying to secure the death of this defendant would have been better spent improving this country’s mental-health and educational institutions, which may help prevent crimes such as the ones we are presented with today.” Judge Martin has served as a judge on the Sixth Circuit for more than three decades.

Tennessee Judge Overturns Capital Conviction Because of Undiscovered Evidence

On October 12, Tennessee Judge James Beasley Jr. (pictured) overturned the conviction and death sentence of Michael Rimmer because critical evidence, not presented at his trial, throws doubt on Rimmer's guilt. The court ruled that Rimmer’s "overburdened" trial lawyers repeatedly failed to uncover evidence that two other men were seen at the victim's last location around the time of her disappearance, and both had blood on their hands.  One of the men was already wanted in connection with another stabbing.  Moreover, one of the men was reportedly carrying what looked like a heavy object wrapped in a comforter and loaded it into the trunk of a car. The court found that the lead prosecutor in the case compounded the injustice by making “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to Rimmer’s defense lawyers, denying the existence of such evidence. The court ordered a new trial for Rimmer.

Former Tennessee Death Row Inmate Walks Free After 27 Years

On June 1, former Tennessee death row inmate Erskine Johnson (pictured; now known as Ndume Olatushani) was freed after serving nearly 27 years in prison, 19 of which were spent on death row. Johnson, who maintained his innocence throughout the process, was sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of a grocer in Memphis. In 2004, he was resentenced to life in prison after the state Supreme Court found that prosecutors did not disclose important information to the defense. In December 2011, Johnson was awarded a new trial by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in light of new information indicating state’s witnesses may have been motivated to protect other suspects.  If the jury had known of this motive, it could have weakened the witnesses’ credibility, and might have resulted in a different verdict.  Johnson entered an Alford plea (a guilty plea in which the defendant accepts that the weight of the evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict, but still maintains his actual innocence) to second-degree murder, in exchange for a sentence of time already served.  Johnson is now 54, having lived half his life incarcerated.  Prison officials called him an exemplary prisoner.