Tennessee Attorney General Seeks Eight Execution Dates as Prisoners Challenge "Torturous" Drug Protocol

Thirty-three Tennessee death-row prisoners have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality and legality of the state's new execution protocol, after Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery (pictured) asked the state supreme court to expedite executions before one of the state's execution drugs expires. On February 14, Slatery asked the court to schedule eight execution to be carried out before June 1. Attorneys for the death-row prisoners, who were in the process of finalizing their challenge to the protocol, asked the high court for two weeks to respond to the Attorney General's request for death warrants. On February 20, they filed their own complaint in the Davidson County Court of Chancery arguing that the execution process adopted by state officials used drugs their own suppliers have told them will not work properly, and that the "torturous" drug protocol adopted by the state should be ruled unconstitutionally cruel and usual. In January, Tennessee changed its lethal-injection protocol from a one-drug barbiturate—the method used in the most recent executions carried out by Texas, Missouri, and Georgia—to a three-drug formula using the controversial drug midazolam, which has resulted in protracted and problematic executions in several states. Although Tennessee has not carried out an execution since 2009, the Attorney General said the state's ability to carry out lethal-injection executions "after June 1, 2018 is uncertain due to the ongoing difficulty in obtaining the necessary lethal injection chemicals." One of the lawyers for the prisoner, Supervisory Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley J. Henry, said, "What Tennessee is proposing to do amounts to torturing prisoners to death, which we know because we’ve seen this protocol fail in other states." She said "You cannot break the law in order to enforce the law," but the protocol "requires pharmacists, doctors, and prison officials to act illegally." The prisoners' lawsuit references an email between a drug supplier and Tennessee corrections officials—a copy of which was obtained by the USA Today Network—showing that prison officials had been alerted to potential problems with midazolam months before they adopted their new drug protocol. In that September 2017 email, the supplier wrote: "Here is my concern with midazolam ... it does not elicit strong analgesic effects. The subjects may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs. Potassium chloride especially." The Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have likened the unanesthetized use of potassium chloride to being "chemically burned at the stake," and the prisoners' lawyers it would unconstitutionally subject their clients to "being burned alive from the inside." In February of last year, the state of Arkansas set eight executions over an 11-day period of time—all scheduled before the end of April based on the concern that the lethal-injection drugs would expire and the state would be unable to obtain more. Arkansas only carried out four of the eight, and there were notably visible problems with the use of midazolam in at least one of the four executions. Later in the year, Arkansas obtained additional drugs for another execution, which ultimately was stayed as a result of competency issues.  [UPDATE: On March 15, 2018, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied the Attorney General's request, but did set two execution dates, scheduling the executions of Edmund Zagorski for October 1, 2018 and David Earl Miller for December 6, 2018.] 

(Toby Sells, AG Wants Execution Dates Set for Death Row Inmates, Memphis Flyer, News Blog, February 15, 2018; Dave Boucher, Attorney general: Tennessee should set 8 executions before June 1, when drug availability becomes 'uncertain', The Tennessean, February 15, 2018; Dave Boucher, Lawsuit: Tennessee death row inmates say state's lethal injection drugs cause torture, The Tennessean, February 20, 2018; Toby Sells, Lawsuit: New Lethal Injection Method 'Like Being Burned Alive on the Inside', Memphis Flyer, News Blog, February 20, 2018. [UPDATE: Dave Boucher, Tennessee Supreme Court denies AG's request for 8 executions by June 1, The Tennessean, March 15, 2018.]) See Upcoming Executions, Lethal Injection, and Tennessee.