Executions are on hold in Tennessee while a former U.S. Attorney is brought in to review the protocol that stopped a lethal injection late last month.
Gov. Bill Lee halted the execution of Oscar Smith just an hour before it was scheduled to take place April 21. The governor’s office said Monday that it was discovered the medication doses hadn’t gone through all the quality tests that are required.
The governor’s office says the drugs were checked for potency and sterility, but not for endotoxins, a sign of bacteria. Since the drug cocktail can’t be tried out before the execution, it’s vital to ensure nothing unexpected is present that could cause someone pain.
The governor says he’s ordered a third-party review that will cover not only the particulars of that incident but also the policy manual used in executions and relevant staffing issues at the Department of Corrections. The review will be carried out by Edward Stanton III, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.
“The death penalty is an extremely serious matter,” Governor Bill Lee says. “I expect the Tennessee Department of Correction to leave no question that procedures are correctly followed.”
In the meantime, Lee says all five executions scheduled for this year will be paused.
The move is being praised by federal public defender Kelley Henry, who requested executions be stopped until more information was gleaned about what went wrong in the Smith execution.
“Governor Lee’s decision to pause executions pending an independent review of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol shows great leadership,” Henry wrote in a statement to WPLN. “The use of compounded drugs in the context of lethal injection is fraught with risk.”
Henry says the topics of the investigation will examine long-standing concerns over lethal injections in Tennessee. The protocols have been questioned for years, and even contributed to a nearly decade-long hiatus as the state struggled to find drugs.
“The secrecy that has surrounded the procurement and administration of these drugs is incredibly troubling,” Henry says. “It allows for mistakes, and it allows for these errors and omissions to occur.”
As for the people waiting on death row now, Henry says they have mixed emotions about the pause in executions.
“Gratitude and relief, but also continued uncertainty, and continued limbo as to – what will they come up with next?” Henry says. “I certainly hope that the state moves away from this risky three drug protocol, because we know the pain and suffering that it has caused.”
Some on death row have opted to be killed in the electric chair in recent years out of fear that lethal injection would be more painful. Since 2019, three of four executions have been carried out by electric chair.