NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – 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 state-of-the-art method of execution puts Tennessee on a divergent path from South Carolina, which has been preparing for a rare execution by U.S. firing squad. However, the South Carolina Supreme Court put the planned execution on April 29 on hold, at least temporarily, and said a more detailed order would follow.
In Tennessee, secrecy laws prevent the public from determining how the drugs for Smith’s execution were procured.
Meanwhile, South Carolina lawmakers have failed to pass a similar law to keep their drug suppliers confidential, despite calls from correctional authorities. Now the state has fallen back on the much older, and less frequently used method of execution. The last execution of US firefighters was in 2010.
South Carolina has cited its struggles to obtain lethal injection drugs in recent years, a problem in many states because pharmacies and manufacturers have refused to supply their drugs for executions.
Smith has argued that he should also be executed by a firing squad, arguing that it is less painful than Tennessee’s two options, but his trial was rejected.
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 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 am going from here. With my faith and faith, I will be with my Savior and my deceased family.”
His lawyers were denied requests to reopen 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.
In Oklahoma last October, an inmate got seizures and vomited after receiving midazolam using the same lethal injection of three drugs. Oklahoma has performed three lethal injections since, without similar reactions being reported.
In Tennessee, Smith’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully for the firing squad, pointing out that South Carolina gave the green light for firefighting executions last month – one of four states that allow that method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Exactly how some states have execution drugs at hand while others struggle to secure them is often obscured by exceptions from state public records.
A Tennessee Department of Correction spokesman declined to identify the source of its execution drug, which can be manufactured or assembled. Documents on the drugs obtained by the Associated Press through a request for public records were heavily edited, removing references to the state supplier.
Meanwhile in South Carolina, a correctional official said in a recent statement that manufacturers and compound pharmacies contacted by the state refused to supply the drugs.
Although South Carolina has failed to disclose additional confidentiality to lethal injection providers, Idaho recently took that step.
Republican Gov. Brad Little has signed a law banning officials from disclosing – even in court cases – where they have been given executions.
Michelle Liu of Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.