May 2, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Tennessee pauses executions as it reviews lethal injections

Photo of a masked Bill Lee speaking into a mic and gesturing with his left hand
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during an Operation Warp Speed vaccine summit at the White House on Dec. 8, 2020. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) on Monday ordered a halt to all executions through the end of the year and launched a third-party investigation into the state's failures to properly test lethal injection drugs.

Why it matters: The drugs were set to be used on prisoner Oscar Franklin Smith last month, but the execution was stopped at the last minute after it was determined that the drugs were not tested for contaminants that could cause unpredictable side effects if injected. Lawyers have long criticized the drugs as faulty and unconstitutional.

  • Lee's order temporarily delays five executions that were slated for 2022.
  • Federal public defenders have urged Lee to create an independent commission to investigate the state's death penalty protocol.

What they're saying: "I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes," Lee said in a statement.

  • "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."
  • "An investigation by a respected third-party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed," he added. "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."

The big picture: Tennessee's lethal injection protocol has been the subject of litigation for years — one lawsuit is awaiting trial in federal court, Axios Nashville's Adam Tamburin writes.

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