Death Row Delayed: The pandemic’s impact on Tennessee executions

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The COVID-19 pandemic shut down bars, restaurants, the entertainment industry. It also shut down executions in Tennessee.

Death row inmate Nicholas Sutton was executed by electric chair on the evening of Feb. 20 at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. He was the seventh Tennessee inmate put to death in a span of 18 months – a pace topped only by the state of Texas.

But as the dynamics of the pandemic continued to evolve, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued stays of execution for two death row inmates because of COVID-19.

In April, the court postponed the scheduled execution of Oscar Smith by eight months. He had been sentenced to die on June 4 for the murders of his estranged wife and her two sons from a previous marriage. Smith’s attorneys argued that restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus prevented them from doing important legal work for the case.

Then in June, the court postponed the execution of Byron Black – moving it from Oct. 8 to April 8, 2021. Black was convicted in Nashville of murdering his girlfriend Angela Clay and her daughters Latoya, 9, and Lakesha, 6, at their home in 1988. His attorneys said the pandemic made it impossible to have a hearing on whether Black is competent to be executed. They also wrote that the health crisis was interfering with the ability to prepare for a clemency request.

In July, Governor Bill Lee Governor announced he would grant a temporary reprieve from execution to death row inmate Harold Wayne Nichols.

“I am granting Harold Wayne Nichols a temporary reprieve from execution until December 31, 2020, due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gov. Lee said in a statement to News 2 on July 17.

Nichols was convicted of rape and first-degree felony murder in the 1988 death of Karen Pulley in Hamilton County. Weeks after the decision, Pulley’s sister spoke to The Associated Press.

“My hurt does not get to take a break because of a pandemic,” Lisette Monroe said in a phone interview. “I thought finally we were going to have justice. I thought finally I could go to Karen’s grave and say, ‘it’s over.’ But that’s not what I got. I got another excuse.”

Since the execution of Sutton in Tennessee in February, ten death sentences have been carried out nationwide, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. According to the group’s website, the last seven executions were carried out on the Federal level.

News 2 is digging deeper into the impact coronavirus has had on the capital punishment process in Tennessee, including legal arguments and the emotional toll on the families of murder victims.

We have special reports on “Death Row Delayed” all day Thursday in every newscast.

Associated Press reporting was included in this story.

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