Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee suspends all 2022 executions for independent review of lethal injections

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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has paused all executions in the state through 2022 after granting a temporary reprieve for death row inmate Oscar Franklin Smith last month due to “technical oversight” in the lethal injection. 

Lee announced the move in a news release early Monday morning, saying the pause will give time for a third-party review and a complete assessment over the lethal injection process. 

“I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said. “However, the death penalty is an extremely serious matter, and I expect the Tennessee Department of Correction to leave no question that procedures are correctly followed.”

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Smith’s requests for an intervention ahead of his execution scheduled for April 21 were denied by both Lee and the U.S. Supreme Court. Lee temporarily halted Smith’s execution approximately an hour before it was set, citing the “oversight” in the lethal injection preparation. 

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton will oversee the independent review for Tennessee, the release said.

The review will include an exploration into circumstances that led to testing the lethal injection chemicals for only potency and sterility but not endotoxins ahead of the April 21 execution, clarity of the lethal injection process manual that was last updated in 2018 and adherence to testing policies since the update.

“An investigation by a respected third-party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed,” Lee said. “We will pause scheduled executions through the end of 2022 in order to allow for the review and corrective action to be put in place.”

Three of four executions in Tennessee have been carried out by electric chair since 2019, the release said. Death row inmates are given the choice between lethal injection and the electric chair in Tennessee. Lethal injection is the default method for execution in the state.

Smith’s execution was set to be the first since February 2020 due to COVID-19 delays. He was one of five death row inmates set to be executed in Tennessee this year. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court will set new dates for the 2022 executions, the release said.

In Texas last week, death row inmate Melissa Lucio, 53, received a stay of execution to allow a court to consider the new evidence presented by Lucio’s legal team. The stay of execution came just days after the state executed 78-year-old Carl Wayne Buntion, who had been the state’s oldest death row inmate, for killing a Houston police officer during a traffic stop nearly 32 years ago.

Find reporter Rachel Wegner on Twitter: @rachelannwegner.