Tennessee Governor Bill Lee cancels the execution of Oscar Smith, the oldest death row inmate in the state

Tennessee’s governor on Thursday called off what was supposed to be the state’s first execution since the start of the pandemic, granting a temporary reprieve to the oldest death row inmate for what was called “oversight” in the lead-up to the lethal injection. .

Republican Governor Bill Lee did not elaborate on which issue forced the surprise 11-hour shutdown for the planned execution of 72-year-old Oscar Smith. The inmate was supposed to have received a three-drug injection a short time later in Nashville’s maximum security prison.

“Due to an oversight in preparation for the lethal injection, Oscar Smith’s scheduled execution will not take place tonight. I am granting a temporary suspension while we address Tennessee Department of Corrections protocol,” Lee said in a statement Thursday night. market. “More details will be released when they become available.”

Smith was convicted of the 1989 murders of his ex-wife and their teenage children. Shortly before the governor’s surprise announcement, the US Supreme Court had turned down a last-minute offer by Smith’s lawyers to block the execution plan.

Dorinda Carter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the state Supreme Court would need to reschedule the execution. She said that Smith would be removed from death watch and returned to his death row cell. She declined to provide more information and referred questions to the governor’s office.

It would be Tennessee’s first execution since the start of the pandemic.

In Houston, the oldest inmate on Texas death row faced a scheduled execution Thursday night. Carl Wayne Buntion, 78, was sentenced to death for the fatal shooting in June 1990 of Houston police officer James Irby during a traffic stop.

In Tennessee, officials had previously said the state was planning five executions this year, including Smith’s. It has been seeking to resume its rapid, pre-pandemic pace of putting prisoners to death. The five outstanding death warrants link Tennessee to Texas as the most national this year, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Smith had initially been scheduled for a June 2020 run, one of several dates pushed back because of the pandemic.

Oscar Smith
Oscar Smith

Tennessee Department of Corrections/AP

Smith was convicted of fatally stabbing and shooting Judith Smith and her children Jason and Chad Burnett, 13 and 16, at their Nashville home on October 1, 1989.

Smith maintained that he is innocent. In a plea for clemency, rejected by Lee on Tuesday, Smith’s legal team alleged problems with the jury in his 1990 trial.

His lawyers were previously denied requests to reopen his case after a new type of DNA analysis found the DNA of an unknown person on one of the murder weapons.

The state has not carried out executions since February 2020, when Nicholas Sutton died in the electric chair for the murder of a fellow inmate at a prison in eastern Tennessee. Of the seven inmates Tennessee has killed since 2018 — when Tennessee ended an execution break dating back to 2009 — only two have died by lethal injection.

Smith had previously 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 render the inmate unconscious; vecuronium bromide, to paralyze the prisoner; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart.

Authorities said midazolam leaves an inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. Expert witnesses to inmates, however, say the drugs would cause feelings of drowning, choking and chemical burning, leaving inmates unable to move or scream. The assessment led to more prisoners opting for the electric chair over lethal injection.

In Oklahoma last October, an inmate sentenced to death using the same three-drug lethal injection convulsed and vomited after receiving midazolam. Oklahoma has performed three lethal injections since then, with no similar reactions reported.

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