The Tennessee Supreme Court has delayed the state’s next execution, scheduled for June 4. Oscar Smith is now set to be executed in February of next year.
The federal public defender’s office filed a motion earlier this month, urging the court to postpone Smith’s execution. His attorneys argued social distancing measures during COVID-19 pandemic have hindered their ability to build his defense case.
“Mr. Smith’s legal team continue to abide by the orders of Nashville Mayor Cooper and Governor Lee,” Smith’s attorneys wrote. “But doing so has resulted in the loss of critical time needed to represent Mr. Smith during this crucial period.”
The motion also argued that conducting an execution during the coronavirus outbreak “presents needless additional risk to the staff and the almost 800 inmates of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution,” since it would take employees away from their normal duty of keeping the prison safe. The attorneys said bringing in media witnesses and other outside visitors, who have been barred from the prison during the pandemic, could also pose a risk.
In a statement, attorney Kelley Henry praised the court’s decision. She said Smith “has always maintained his innocence” and needs to meet with his lawyers to prepare his clemency petition. Those meetings are on hold for now.
Henry added that investigators haven’t been able to conduct interviews for Smith’s application, either.
“None of that face-to-face work can happen at this time without risking public health,” she said.
Smith was sentenced to death in 1990 for murdering his estranged wife, Judy Smith, and her two sons, Chad and Jason Burnett.