Tenn. gov. halts executions to rework lethal injection procedures
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Gov. Phil Bredesen on Thursday postponed four pending executions, saying the state needs to rework its outdated and unspecific procedures for lethal injection.Bredesen reiterated his support for the death penalty but said he was issuing temporary reprieves for four condemned killers because of holes in the state's written execution protocols that could be challenged in courts.
"The document describes the drugs to be used, it doesn't describe how much of them is to be used. That's a huge failure of that document," Bredesen said.
State officials want to complete a "comprehensive review" and reworking of the execution guidelines by May 2, the governor said.
"There's no question in my mind the protocols are not adequate. That's why we're taking this action today," Bredesen said.
The review will not be limited to cleaning up the language of the document.
"We're going to take this is an opportunity to review it from top to bottom," Bredesen said. "There's always questions about the three-drug approach, and we're certainly going to specify carefully how much of each of those drugs is to be administered under what circumstances."
The governor said he called for the review because of a case pending in federal court that challenges the state's lethal injection process.
The decision comes as states nationwide are scrutinizing lethal injection procedures. Florida placed a moratorium on executions after a lethal injection was botched.
"Putting a needle through the vein, not getting the drug into the vein - that's a governor's nightmare," Bredesen said. "How do you know that's not going to happen here?"
Executions also are halted in Missouri, California and North Carolina because of lethal injection concerns.
Tennessee has executed only two inmates since 1960, and Bredesen said there was no evidence of problems with the earlier lethal injections.
The governor identified the inmates who got 90-day reprieves as Edward J. Harbison and Daryl Holton, who were to be executed later this month, and Michael J. Boyd and Pervis T. Payne, who were scheduled to die in March. Boyd is also known as Mija'eel Abdullah Abdus-Samad.
Harbison, Boyd and Payne have been on death row since the 1980s while Holton was sentenced in 1999.
Once the protocols have been reworked and the reprieves have expired, the state Supreme Court is expected to reset their execution dates.
The current protocols are 200 pages long, and include outdated information related to electrocuting prisoners, Bredesen said.
Holton has asked to be electrocuted, a choice granted by state law to death-row inmates who committed their crimes before 1999, when the state adopted lethal injection.
"It's not a good, careful description for somebody on how to carry out an execution in the state of Tennessee," Bredesen said. "There's far too much left to oral tradition or 'This is the way we've always done it.'"
State Correction Commissioner George Little said prison workers practice execution procedures every month.
"From a practical standpoint they were doing OK," Bredesen said. "The problem is the documentation and the things that could be challenged in court and protect against errors in the future were not there. We need to have them there."
Bredesen said he is confident that the state will be able to complete the overhaul of its rules within the next three months. Tennessee will look to other states like Virginia to find what Bredesen called "best practices" in executions.
The Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing welcomes the postponement of the executions, spokesman Alex Wiesendanger said.
"Obviously we think the governor has taken moral and logical steps," he said. "Tennessee's executions protocols were a botched execution waiting to happen."
"We see it as part of a national pattern," said David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Washington. "When we look at the death penalty, we feel it's something that needs to be questioned during every stage of the process."