Brian Haas, The Tennesseean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Never before has Tennessee asked to execute so many of the condemned.
here, believing they are free of the latest round of challenges to
Tennessee's death penalty, recently asked the state Supreme Court for
execution dates for 10 death row inmates. One of those 10, Billy Ray
Irick, is scheduled to die Jan. 15 for raping and killing a 7-year-old
Knoxville girl he had been baby-sitting in 1985.
An 11th man,
Nickolus Johnson, whose execution was sought separately from the 10, is
scheduled to be put to death April 22 for killing a Bristol police
officer in 2004.
Those the state has petitioned to execute who
don't yet have dates set include David Miller, who killed a disabled
woman with a fire poker in 1981. He has lived on death row ever since,
longer than all but one other of the 78 inmates housed in Tennessee's
death row facility at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in
For a state that has executed only six death row
inmates since 1960 and none since 2009, the request marks an
unprecedented push to carry out the death penalty.
representing death row inmates for two decades, and never in my
experience have I ever seen a situation where a state has requested 10
execution dates all at once," said Kelley Henry, who supervises capital
punishment defense cases with the Federal Public Defender's Office in
Nashville and represents several of those the state is looking to
execute. "This is an unprecedented situation."
and other attorneys for the condemned men are asking a lower court to
halt the executions over questions about the drug the state now plans to
use. The Supreme Court could set those dates at any time, but similar
challenges in the past have delayed executions in Tennessee, sometimes
The state minimized the significance of seeking
execution dates for 10 inmates, saying instead that those 10 had
exhausted the normal appeals and review process. Corrections officials
believe they now have a system in place to carry out lethal injections
since they recently changed their execution drug.
"We filed all 10
motions at the same time because they were all ready to be set for
execution, and TDOC was in a position to carry them out under a new
protocol," said Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman for the Tennessee
Attorney General's Office, which requested the 10 execution dates.
Department could not have carried out the executions earlier because it
was unable to procure all of the drugs required under the old
But Michael Rushford, executive director of the pro-death penalty,
California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said executions
aren't ordered by happenstance.
"You don't get this unless the
governor wants this," he said. "So obviously they're moving forward
because he told the Department of Correction, 'Move forward.'"
Gov. Bill Haslam said through a spokesman that he had no involvement.
"The AG recommends the dates, and the Supreme Court makes the call," spokesman Dave Smith said.
'Sort of backed up'
average inmate on Tennessee's death row has been sitting there for
nearly 19 years. The 10 selected by the state for possible execution
dates average more than 27 years on death row.
of murdering a disabled woman with a fire poker, has had the
second-longest wait for an execution in the state, outlasted only by
Donald Strouth, 54, who has been on death row since 1978 for slashing
the throat of a store owner in Kingsport.
In the years since then,
the death penalty here and across the nation has faced a barrage of
legal challenges and drug shortages as pharmaceutical companies have
pulled commonly used lethal injection drugs from the shelves. Tennessee
found itself without sodium thiopental in 2011, putting all executions
on hold until it could come up with a new drug, which it finally did in
Those delays probably played a major factor in the
state's recent double-figure request, said Nashville defense attorney
David Raybin, who essentially wrote the state's death penalty statute.
lack of a better word, (executions) sort of backed up," Raybin said. "I
think what they've done is, they've said, 'We've backed up for so long
and now we want to put them all on a fast track because nothing has
happened for years.' "
"I think what
happened is, is the pipe has been cleared," he said. "This is just
built-up cases that they now are able to get into this position."
But Raybin suggested that Tennessee officials may have another motive for asking for so many executions.
Nov. 1, mass murderer Paul Dennis Reid Jr. died, not by lethal
injection while strapped to a gurney but in a bed at Nashville General
Hospital at Meharry. Reid murdered seven fast-food restaurant workers in
Nashville and Clarksville in 1997 and was sentenced to die - seven
death sentences in all - that year.
The family of Angela Mace, who
was killed by Reid at a Clarksville Baskin-Robbins, found out he had
died in the hospital through the media and was furious. Mace's mother,
Connie Black, told the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, "If you think about
it, he's in a hospital surrounded by family and has a peaceful death. It
wasn't supposed to happen that way.
"He just died a normal death like everyone else."
Raybin suspects the state, regardless of its public stance, took notice of Reid's death and the backlash that ensued.
got a guy who killed all those people, the most infamous guy on death
row, and he dies a natural death," Raybin said. "Some people could say,
'We're offended because he wasn't executed.'"
Kelley, with the
federal public defender's office, said she worries that the push for so
many executions will obscure the death row inmates' "individual
stor(ies) of injustice," particularly because Tennessee has been putting
fewer and fewer killers on death row. She thinks perceptions about the
death penalty have softened over the years.
"There is no doubt in my mind that if they were tried today, they would not receive the death penalty," she said.