Tennessee Makes Unprecedented Push to Speed Up 10 Executions

Human Rights

Tennessee is tired of not being able to execute its condemned inmates.

In what is being cited as an unprecedented speed walk through death row, state officials have requested ten execution dates from the Supreme Court for ten different death row inmates, marking a stark and sudden shift from a state that has executed only six death row inmates since 1960, and none since 2009. 

As Brian Haas of The Tennessean reports, the first execution is already slated for January 15, for inmate Billy Ray Irick, who was convicted for raping and killing a 7-year-old Knoxville girl he had been babysitting in 1985. But not all of the inmates have been given an execution date, including David Miller, who was tried and found guilty for killing a disabled woman with a fire poker in 1981. Miller has been living on death row longer than nearly all of the 78 other inmates housed in Tennessee’s death row facility at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

Those who represent death row inmates are shocked at the sudden push. 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, told USA Today:

"I've been 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. This is an unprecedented situation."

Henry and other attorneys for the inmates are asking a lower court to halt the executions because of questions about the change in execution drugs the state plans to use. Such challenges have worked in the past. 

But the state is tired of waiting and says  the 10 executions in question have exhausted the normal time and process for appears and reviews. Corrections officials believe they have crafted a functioning system to carry out the injections. 

In the years since the death penalty has come under harsher legal challenges on the morality of the issue, drug shortages have caused pharmaceutical companies to pull more commonly used lethal injection drugs. Tennessee found itself without sodium thiopental in 2011, which caused an indefinite hold on all executions until a new drug was found—which happened in September.

The average Tennessee death row inmate has been waiting for nearly 19 years; the ten selected by the state for possible execution dates have an average of more than 27 years on death row. 

Kelley, with the federal public defender's office, told USA Today 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 also thinks people's views of the death penalty have changed.

"There is no doubt in my mind that if they were tried today, they would not receive the death penalty," she said. 

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