Now that the state believes it is safe from legal challenges to its death penalty procedures, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper recently asked the state Supreme Court to set execution dates for 10 death row prisoners all at once. The unprecedented request, first reported by the Tennessean's Brian Haas, would put more executions on the schedule than all the previous executions the state has carried out since 1976.
Tennessee's last execution was in 2009, in a state that's put just six inmates to death since the '70s, according to data from the Death Penalty Information center. Most death row inmates in the state sit imprisoned for decades without the sentence being scheduled. The state scheduled its first execution in five years for this coming January. But apparently, state officials are eager to reboot capital punishment, and believe they've found a way to do it with as little legal interference as possible.
Speaking to the Tennessean, Attorney General spokesperson Sharon Curtis-Flair explained that "We filed all 10 motions at the same time because they were all ready to be set for execution, and The Department Of Corrections was in a position to carry them out under a new protocol." Curtis-Flair added: “The Department could not have carried out the executions earlier because it was unable to procure all of the drugs required under the old protocol.”
Like many states, Tennessee's lethal injection program ran into a bit of trouble when the Italian manufacturers of sodium thiopental ceased production of the drug over ethical concerns in 2011. The drug was one of three widely used in the lethal injection cocktail administered to patients sentenced to die, meaning that those states who wished to continue carrying out capital punishment eventually had to find a new execution drug. Most states went with a new, single drug protocol, using pentobarbital. The drug is usually used to euthanize animals, but has been largely accepted by the courts for the death penalty.
Tennessee decided to go with pentobarbital this past September, even as some states struggle to work around shortages of the drug in the face of a new round of manufacturer boycotts. Like many states facing restrictions from suppliers on pentobarbital purchases for executions, Tennessee is keeping pretty quiet about how, specifically it will acquire the drug. Other states, like Texas and Missouri, have turned to private compounding pharmacies for drug supplies.
Hass notes another possible motive for the state: the high-profile, natural death of one of Tennessee's most notorious death row inmates. Paul Dennis Reid Jr. died in November at a Nashville hospital, instead of at the hand of the state, causing a decent amount of bad press for the government. Reid killed seven people in 1997, for which he was sentenced to the death penalty seven times. The mother of one of Reid's victims told the Leaf-Chronicle that " It wasn’t supposed to happen that way," adding, "He just died a normal death like everyone else.”
The first execution on Tennessee's 2014 schedule is Billy Ray Irick's on January 15. Another, separately scheduled execution is set for April. There are 78 prisoners currently on death row in Tennessee.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.