TN Can’t Even Follow the Lethal Injection Rules They Wrote for Themselves in 2018

felipe caparros /
felipe caparros /

Back in May, Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Lee put a pause on state executions following reports of the state botching executions and causing those who had taken lethal injection undue pain and suffering. This pause came just one hour before Oscar Smith was set to be put to death, and possibly prevented him from suffering the same fate as others.

For the last week, Lee has been looking over the report, and his staff had refused to make the findings public. Instead, they wanted to fully review the hundreds of pages that this report is comprised of and ensure that they make the right decisions going forward. They insisted that they were not trying to bury the findings under the guise of the holiday season.

Previously, TN paused executions in 2018 to investigate allegations of mistakes, and since then, only seven have been put to death – two by injection and five by electric chair. None of these injections, nor Smith’s, included the required testing for endotoxins by the pharmacy. One injection also failed to test the drug midazolam for its potency.

In Texas, lethal injection is performed with a three-drug cocktail. Midazolam is used as a sedative, and it is supposed to prevent them from feeling any pain. Vecuronium bromide paralyzes the inmate. Finally, potassium chloride stops the heart. While it’s a “perfect cocktail” if administered correctly, reports in 2017 indicated that midazolam might not be as strong a pain blocker as previously thought. Instead, patients were potentially left able to feel everything from the second and third injections, but unable to move or speak up about the pain.

On December 28th, the full report was released, with much of the information redacted. Emails and text messages that outlined who was who and who knew what comprised a large part of the redactions, and while that is a logical decision, it leaves more questions than answers for the people of TN. Especially for the people on death row and those who have a vested interest in their cases. However, Gov. Lee acknowledged that changes were coming and that two people found themselves out of work due to the report.

Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry was bothered deeply by the news in these reports, especially when learning that a copy of the proper protocol was never given to the pharmacist who was mixing the drugs for the lethal injections. Henry served as a witness for US Attorney Ed Stanton who reviewed the procedures and sent the report back.

According to Henry, “The state must do everything in its power to avoid the execution botches we have seen in other states and in Tennessee in the recent past. What we learned today is that secrecy in our state’s execution process breeds a lack of accountability, sloppiness, and a high risk of horrifying mistakes.”

The report also contained two very troubling findings that should alarm anyone.

– Tennessee’s executioner has no formal healthcare training, and instead learned with on-the-job training. While this is acceptable in things like fast food and other low-skill jobs, this should have someone qualified to perform the procedure. Granted, Stanton’s team is under the belief that many who would meet those qualifications would reject the job due to their Hippocratic oath, and how executions could be seen as a violation.

– The system the state had in place requiring one person to procure the lethal injection chemicals and verifying their use for executions was a massive job for anyone. Especially when this was considered to be a subtask to their other responsibilities. The report explained that this system “seems like an abdication of responsibility by TDOC leadership” and a reason for so many failures in their system.

The people of TN deserve to have those sentenced to death suffer their fate responsibly. If they cannot fix lethal injection, we could always bring back the firing squad. God knows that’s nearly impossible to botch.