NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declined to provide any new information Friday explaining his decision to call off the state's first scheduled execution since the start of the pandemic, but said more details will likely be provided next week.
The night before, the Republican governor had issued a statement saying there had been an “oversight in preparation for lethal injection” as he granted a temporary reprieve to 72-year-old inmate Oscar Smith. An attorney for Smith, Amy Harwell, later told reporters that her office had been told there had been a “mishandling” of the drugs.
“I granted a temporary reprieve because of a technical oversight," Lee told reporters on Friday. "I have high expectations for our departments, and the death penalty is a serious matter that requires attention to detail. We are digging into this, and I expect we will have more to report next week.”
Smith was convicted of the 1989 killings of his estranged wife and her two teenage sons. Shortly before the governor intervened, the U.S. Supreme Court had denied a last-hour bid by Smith’s attorneys for a stay.
The inmate had been scheduled to receive a three-drug injection at a Nashville maximum security prison and was preparing for his final moments with his spiritual advisor when he received the news, according to Harwell.
He had already had what was to be his last meal and was finishing communion before he was to be escorted to the death chamber.
“When the wardens walked in, the spiritual adviser very graciously said, ‘I have consecrated more communion, would you guys like to join us?’ And the warden said, ‘No, I need to give Oscar some news. There’s not going to be an execution tonight,'” Harwell told The Associated Press.
Smith slumped with relief, Harwell recalled, and both he and the Rev. Matthew Lewis praised God.
“Our prayers have been answered,” Harwell remembered the two saying.
Lewis said Smith was “stunned” by the news and had been “fully preparing to die in the next hour.”
Smith's reprieve is in effect until the beginning of June, but in the interim, attorneys and death penalty watchdog groups are already calling for an independent investigation into the matter.
“I think that it is imperative that there be an independent evaluation of what happened,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “And the reason I say that is because our experience across the country has been that departments of corrections hide the truth.”
Dunham said what happened in Tennessee adds a new chapter to a long history of states struggling to follow their own rules and procedures when carrying out executions. He noted that these processes are often shrouded in secrecy and paranoia that only increase the risk of mishaps.
In 2021, Texas officials determined that new personnel and procedures along with insufficient oversight led to reporters not witnessing the state's first execution in nearly a year. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice later said the incident was “preventable and inexcusable.”
In Oklahoma, the state's use of a new drug combination in 2014 led to a botched execution where the inmate writhed and clenched his teeth on the gurney before eventually dying from a heart attack. Nearly two years later, a grand jury found that the top lawyer for then Gov. Mary Fallin urged prison officials to go forward with a planned execution of Richard Glossip despite receiving the wrong drug. The report found the deputy attorney general told prison staff to “Google it” to confirm if the wrong drug could be used.
Then last year, an Oklahoma man convulsed and vomited during his lethal injection in an execution witnessed by an Associated Press reporter. Correction officials later said the execution was carried out “without complication.”
And in 2015, Georgia prison officials were forced to halt an execution at the last minute when the lethal injection drug turned cloudy, a circumstance state officials struggled to explain, according to court documents.
“States can manufacture reasons for being incompetent, but there is no excuse for being incompetent,” Dunham said.
Tennessee uses a three-drug series to put inmates to death: midazolam, a sedative to render the inmate unconscious; vecuronium bromide, to paralyze the inmate; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart.
Officials have said midazolam renders an inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. Expert witnesses for inmates, however, say the drugs would cause sensations of drowning, suffocation and chemical burning while leaving inmates unable to move or call out. The assessment has led to more inmates choosing the electric chair over lethal injection, which is an option for some in Tennessee.
Lethal injection drugs have been a challenge to obtain for some states as many pharmacies and manufacturers refuse to supply the medications for executions. Most recently in South Carolina, officials decided to forge ahead with plans for a firing squad after it struggled to find the necessary drugs. That execution has since been delayed as well.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.