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Gov. Bill Lee pauses executions, calls for independent review after granting temporary reprieve

Oscar F. Smith was set to be executed on April 21. However, it was unexpectedly paused due to an "oversight" in the lethal injection preparation.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee has paused executions in Tennessee through 2022.

The pause comes after the first execution since February 2022 was abruptly called off because of an unspecified "oversight" in the lethal preparation process. 

Oscar F. Smith, 72, was set to be executed on Thursday, April 21 by lethal injection. However, Smith was unexpectedly granted temporary reprieve.

Lee announced plans on Monday to launch a third-party review of the "oversight." 

“An investigation by a respected third party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed,” Lee said.  “We will pause scheduled executions through the end of 2022 in order to allow for the review and corrective action to be put in place.” 

Both the United States Supreme Court and Lee declined to intervene on the merits of Smith’s case. However, questions surrounding lethal injection testing preparation for the execution resulted in a temporary reprieve by the governor.

Tennesee has hired U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to conduct an independent review of: 

  • Circumstances that led to testing the lethal injection chemicals for only potency and sterility but not endotoxins preparing for the April 21 execution
  • Clarity of the lethal injection process manual that was last updated in 2018, and adherence to testing policies since the update
  • TDOC staffing considerations

"I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said. “However, the death penalty is an extremely serious matter, and I expect the Tennessee Department of Correction to leave no question that procedures are correctly followed.”

The Federal Public Defender requested that Lee place a moratorium on state executions and appoint an independent commission to study the state's execution protocol. 

Since 2019, three of four executions in Tennesee have been carried out by the electric chair. Death row inmates can choose to be executed by the electric chair rather than lethal injection. Lethal injection is the default execution method in Tennessee. 

Smith's original execution was set to be the first execution since February 2022 due to the pandemic. 

There were five executions scheduled to take place in 2022. The Tennesee supreme court will determine rescheduled states for the 2022 executions.

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