The state Supreme Court acted Monday to stop the executions of four inmates, including one set for Tuesday, to consider whether prison officials have found a way to carry out lethal injections humanely.
The court gave Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman 90 days to rule on the constitutionality of the state’s new lethal injection procedure.
The ruling came hours after lawyers for condemned double-killer Stephen Michael West asked the court to stop his execution Tuesday (read article here). They argued prison officials have failed to ensure he won’t suffer horrific pain as he suffocates on the gurney in the death chamber.
West claims the state’s lethal injection procedure violates the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because the initial drug — a sedative — fails to render the inmate unconscious before paralytic and then heart-stopping chemicals are injected into his veins.
Last week, Bonnyman sided with West, ruling Tennessee's process "allows for death by suffocation while conscious." Prison officials quickly changed their execution protocol, requiring the warden to make sure the inmate is unconscious after the sedative is administered. Under the new procedure, the warden will brush a hand over an inmate's eyelashes and gently shake the inmate or call out his name to check for consciousness.
The state Supreme Court said it was satisfied and ruled the execution could go on as scheduled. But the court changed its mind after the new motion from West’s lawyers. In it, they contended the check for consciousness is inadequate.
“The evidence … proves that brushing the inmate's eyelashes, calling his name, and even gently shaking him will not measure whether the inmate will be unconscious of the pain produced by the three-drug protocol,” the motion states. “The evidence proves that a person can be unconscious of verbal stimuli or slight physical stimuli and yet be responsive to stronger stimuli. The evidence proves that the pain produced by the protocol requires a depth of unconsciousness not seen in Tennessee's executed inmates.”
In addition to West’s, the court postponed the executions of Billy Ray Irick, Edmund Zagorski and Edward Jerome Harbison. West was convicted in the 1986 stabbing deaths of Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila Romines, in Union County. He was moved to death watch Sunday at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
In the 10 years since Tennessee resumed executions, six people have been executed.