Saying that Nicholas Sutton “has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver,” lawyers for the Tennessee death-row prisoner filed an application for clemency with Governor Bill Lee on January 14, 2020. The clemency application, which requests that Lee commute Sutton’s sentence to life without parole, contained affidavits of support from seven Tennessee correctional officials, members of the victims’ families, and five of the jurors in the case.

Sutton currently faces a February 20, 2020 execution date for a murder committed in his early twenties while he was in prison on another murder charge.

The clemency application provides details from prison officials of how Sutton has matured and changed during his time on death row and how he has repeatedly intervened in dangerous situations to protect corrections personnel and other prisoners. “Five Tennesseans, including three prison staff members, owe their lives to him,” the petition said. The petition backs up that claim with statements from two corrections officers who say that Sutton saved their lives, and an earlier statement by a since-deceased Sheriff’s Deputy describing how Sutton protected him from an attack by another prisoner.

An affidavit from former corrections officer Tony Eden detailed an incident in which five armed prisoners attacked him and attempted to take him hostage during a 1985 prison riot. “I owe my life to Nick Sutton,” he said. “Nick and another inmate confronted them, physically removed me from the situation and escorted me to the safety of the trap gate in another building…. Nick risked his safety and well-being in order to save me from possible death.”

Officer Cheryl Donaldson provided an account of an incident in 1994 in which Sutton came to her aid after she had sustained a head injury in a fall. Serving as a prison unit manager at the time, she described lying on the prison floor, dazed, with her keys and radio sprawled out in the corridor. She said she feared that a prisoner might assault her or cause a security breach, but instead, “[Nick] sprang into action, helped me to my feet, retrieved my keys and radio, and alerted staff to come to my assistance.” That response, she said, “was typical of Nick, who always puts others before himself and is willing to help anyone in need.”

The clemency petition also offered a statement from the late Howard Ferrell, formerly a Hamblen County Sheriff’s Deputy, who described Sutton tackling a prisoner who was about to attack the deputy. “[Nick] probably could have saved my life,” Ferrell said.

Officer Eden strongly urged Governor Lee to grant Sutton’s request for clemency. “Nick Sutton is a prime example of a person’s ability to change and that those convicted of murder can be rehabilitated,” Eden wrote. “If Nick Sutton was released tomorrow, I would welcome him into my home and invite him to be my neighbor.” Eden said Sutton “poses no danger to the prison staff or other inmates, and his presence in general population would be an asset to everyone at the prison.” Calling the possibility of Sutton’s execution “a grave injustice,” Eden said “I strongly support Nick Sutton receiving a life sentence.”

Five jurors who served at Sutton’s trial and voted to sentence him to death now say they support commuting his sentence to life in prison. His clemency plea also includes statements of support from family members of his victims.

Rosemary (Estep) Hall, the oldest daughter of Carl Estep, whom Sutton killed in prison, said she speaks for her whole family in supporting clemency. Estep, she said, was unpredictably violent. “It breaks my heart that Mr. Sutton has lost so much of his life on death row for killing my father,” she said.

Lowell Sutton, Nick’s cousin and the nephew of murder victim Dorothy Sutton, said, “although the loss of my aunt was very hard on our family, I forgive Nick, our family forgives Nick, and we do not want him to be executed…. Nick’s execution will only cause more pain and hurt for our family; please spare us that.” The nephew and great-niece of Charles Almon also joined the petition. Charles Maynard, who was named for his uncle, Charles Almon, said he forgives Sutton and “tak[ing] another life does nothing to right this wrong.” Maynard’s daughter, Anna Lee, agreed, asking that Tennessee not add “violence on top of violence.”

The clemency petition also describes some of the defects in the legal process that may have contributed to his death sentence, but for which he could not obtain relief in the courts. They note that Sutton appeared before the jury in shackles during his trial, a practice that the Supreme Court later said “undermines the presumption of innocence and the related fairness of the [trial].” His trial lawyers failed to present evidence of extreme abuse and neglect that Sutton experienced throughout his childhood. The petition describes how Nick Sutton was abandoned by his mother during infancy and how his father, Pete Sutton’s chronic drug and alcohol use led to regular verbal and physical abuse.

Nick Sutton’s cousin, Lowell Sutton, described Nick’s upbringing as a “living hell.” Lowell described one incident in which Pete Sutton “beat Nick so badly that he broke his arm and another time where Pete flew into a rage and took Nick and [Nick’s grandmother] hostage at gunpoint, resulting in an armed stand-off with the police. Pete’s mistreatment of Nick broke my heart,” Lowell said. Pete actively encouraged Nick to use drugs, and by age 12, Nick was regularly using drugs with his father.

Dr. Barry Crown, a forensic neuropsychologist who examined Nick Sutton said that the combination of trauma and substance abuse caused developmental impairments to Sutton’s reasoning and judgment. Dr. Crown noted that Sutton had no incidents of violence after reaching brain maturity.

Sutton’s lawyers argue that “[t]he support of his victims’ families, correction staff, jurors, and those whose lives he has saved attest that a life sentence meets the imperatives of justice and mercy.” Governor Lee, they say, should “exercise the power of clemency in the vein for which it was designed—to commute the death sentence of a man who has undergone personal transformation, a man who is worth far more to our society and prison system alive than dead.”


Steven Hale, Nick Sutton Seeks Clemency Ahead of Feb. 20 Execution Date, Nashville Scene, January 14, 2020; Travis Loller, Lawyer: Death row inmate went from life-tak­er to life­saver, Associated Press, January 142020.

Read Nicholas Sutton’s Clemency Application and the affi­davit of Tony Eden.