Tennessee plans 1st COVID-19 era execution, more planned
Tennessee plans 1st COVID-19 era execution, more planned

Tennessee plans 1st COVID-19 era execution, more planned

NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Tennessee is set to execute its first prisoner Thursday since the start of the pandemic and is planning a lethal injection procedure that has become less common in the state than the electric chair in recent years.

Oscar Smith, 72, is scheduled to die for the 1989 killings of his estranged wife and her teenage sons. The execution, using the state’s preferred method, would come while some other states are struggling to secure lethal injection drugs because pharmacies and manufacturers have refused to supply their drugs for executions.

In Tennessee, secrecy laws prevent the public from determining how the drugs for Smith’s execution were procured.

Smith has argued that he should be executed by a firing squad – a method South Carolina has been preparing to use in a now-delayed execution as this state struggles to find executions. Smith argued that it is less painful than Tennessee’s two options, but his lawsuit was dismissed.

His execution would be the first of five planned by Tennessee in 2022, resuming its rapid, pre-pandemic pace of killing inmates. The five pending death sentences bind Tennessee with Texas for most nationally this year, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Smith was originally scheduled for an execution in June 2020, one of several dates delayed due to the pandemic.

Smith was sentenced to death for stabbing and shooting Judith Smith and her sons Jason and Chad Burnett, 13 and 16, at their home in Nashville on October 1, 1989.

Smith has maintained that he is innocent. In a lawsuit dismissed Tuesday by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, Smith’s legal team claimed problems with the jury in his 1990 trial.

“There’s one thing I know for sure,” Smith told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday. “I know where I want to go from here. With my faith and faith, I will be with my Savior and my deceased family.”

His lawyers were denied requests to resume his case after a new type of DNA analysis found DNA from an unknown person on one of the murder weapons.

The state has not carried out any executions since February 2020, when Nicholas Sutton died in the electric chair for the murder of a fellow prisoner in a prison in eastern Tennessee. Of the seven inmates Tennessee has killed since 2018 – when Tennessee ended an execution hiatus dating back to 2009 – only two died of lethal injection.

Smith refused to choose between the chair and lethal injection, so lethal injection became the standard method.

Tennessee uses a series of three drugs to kill the inmates: midazolam, a sedative to make the inmate unconscious; vecuronium bromide, to paralyze the inmate; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart.

Officials have said that midazolam makes an inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. However, inmate expert witnesses say the drugs will cause sensations of drowning, suffocation and chemical burns while leaving the inmates unable to move or shout. The assessment has led to more inmates choosing the electric chair over lethal injection.

Last October in Oklahoma, an inmate who was killed with the same lethal injection of three drugs got seizures and vomited after receiving midazolam. Oklahoma has performed three lethal injections since, without similar reactions being reported.

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