Tennessee governor hands-off as AG moves for more executions

SMYRNA, Tenn. — Tennessee’s governor is refraining from weighing in on the attorney general’s request to schedule executions for nine death-row prisoners and restore a 10th inmate’s death sentence.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday that it is Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s prerogative to request the execution dates and to challenge a court’s decision commuting an inmate’s death sentence to life in prison. Lee said he and Slatery haven’t discussed the decisions.

If Slatery’s two moves are successful, Lee would have to decide 12 separate times whether to spare the life of a prisoner on death row: Two other executions have already been scheduled.

Tennessee, which performed three executions last year, was second only to Texas, which carried out 13. Most states have been moving away from the death penalty.

“The Supreme Court and the attorney general make determinations about executions … and how that process unfolds,” Lee told reporters Thursday. “So I will let that process … play out. That’s their responsibility.”

As a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, Lee touted his Christian faith and highlighted his participation in inmate-mentoring programs.

Last week, Slatery announced he would challenge a Nashville criminal court’s decision to commute the death sentence of black inmate Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s (ah-BOO’-ah-LEE’) (AHB’-dur-RAK’-mahns) to life in prison after concerns were raised that racism tainted the jury selection pool. Slatery argued in his appeal that the court’s order “circumvented established legal procedures.”

He also asked the state Supreme Court to set execution dates for nine death row prisoners.

Tennessee has executed five people since August 2018, including three by electrocution — an option for inmates convicted of crimes before January 1999. Two of the executions have taken place since Lee took office. In those cases, the governor denied each of the inmates’ requests for clemency.

In Tennessee, the attorney general can request execution dates once juries have delivered death sentences and inmates have exhausted their three-tier appeals process in state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court then schedules the executions.

Lee is expected to reveal a slate of criminal justice reform proposals for the upcoming legislative session in January, but changes to the death penalty are not expected to be among them.

Asked Thursday if he thought the death penalty law should be changed, the governor replied, “That’s a decision for the people of Tennessee and the Legislature. The death penalty is appropriate for those most heinous of crimes, and that has been the belief of the people of the state.”

Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorinda Carter declined to respond directly to a question from The Associated Press on Thursday about whether the state had enough lethal injection chemicals for all nine death row inmates. The state allows use of pharmacist-compounded drugs.

“We feel confident we can carry out the orders of the court when dates are set,” Carter said in an email.

Executions in Tennessee are carried out through lethal injection unless the drugs are unavailable, in which case the electric chair is used.

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