Friday, 2 February 2007

Executions in state halted to fix process

Friday, 02/02/07

Executions in state halted to fix process

Opponents applaud governor's order

Lawyers who represent death row inmates on Thursday applauded Gov. Phil Bredesen's decision to halt all executions for 90 days to fix shortcomings in the state's death penalty procedures.

Saying that he wanted to ensure that "no cloud hangs over the state's actions in the future," Bredesen called on the Department of Correction to come up with new written protocols on how to put the condemned to death by injection and electric chair.

Calling the governor's decision "courageous," one attorney noted that it was imperative that inmates be put to death humanely.

The order delays the executions of four inmates who were scheduled to die between now and May. There have been only two people executed in Tennessee since 1960, both by injection. In those other cases, the governor insisted the executions were humane.

"Obviously we don't want any of our clients to be executed," said Kelley Henry, a federal public defender who represented Sedley Alley until he was executed by lethal injection in June. "But also we don't want any of our clients to be tortured. So, if the executions are going to be carried out, they ought to be carried out in accordance with the Constitution."

Another Nashville attorney said the public should be allowed to observe the way changes are made.

"One thing I hope is that the process that they go through in putting together a new lethal injection protocol is public," said Nashville attorney Brad MacLean, who represents death row inmates. "The process needs to be transparent."

During a news conference Thursday to announce the moratorium, Bredesen made clear that he remains committed to use of capital punishment.

"I am a supporter of the death penalty," he said. "I believe, in addition, that it is incumbent on the state to carry out these sentences constitutionally and appropriately."

Fla. case prompts review

Still, Thursday's announcement comes as the state faces a federal court challenge to its lethal injection process. State lawyers were preparing for a Feb. 14 evidentiary hearing before U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger on the lethal injection protocol when they discovered a number of problems with the state's procedures.

For example, there are no guidelines detailing the dosage amounts for the three chemicals used during a lethal injection execution.

"That's a huge failing, a significant failing of that documentation," Bredesen said.

Given that problem and some others, Bredesen said he couldn't ensure there wouldn't be mistakes like the one in Florida, where prison officials botched an execution by pushing the needle clear through the inmate's veins and into his flesh.

The inmate took twice as long to die and had to have a rare second deadly dose of chemicals.

The December incident prompted Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to call for a moratorium on executions there.

"That's a governor's nightmare," Bredesen said.

Bredesen ordered that the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction submit by May 2 a report with recommendations for changing the state execution protocol.

The Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing, which has opposed the death penalty, hailed the moratorium.

The group issued a statement asking the public to contact Bredesen's office to say: "Thank you for making a moral and ethical decision to ensure that Tennessee does not have to endure the horror of a botched execution."

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