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Fact Check: Executions Set For Politics? False

(Susan Kaestner, Tennessee Forum)

Fact Check: Executions Set For Politics? False

By Phil Williams. CREATED Jul 30, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Did Tennessee Supreme Court justices schedule inmates to die just to save their jobs?

That incredible claim is now being pushed by opposition figures who want to oust three incumbent judges, but it ignores basic facts about executions in Tennessee.

The latest example: a speech to the Chattanooga Tea Party by Susan Kaestner.

Kaestner heads the Tennessee Forum, the group responsible for the TV ads that attack the justices for being "liberal on crime."

"There has been no scheduling of executions," Kaestner said. "And as soon as these Supreme Court justices found out, oh, my God, there's not going to be a coronation, there actually might be an election, suddenly we got a bunch of them scheduled."

But Kaestner isn't the only one.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has also made such comments, as has his Nashville roommate, Senate Chairman Mike Bell.

“The Supreme Court is in charge of setting execution dates for convicts. They have started doing so only recently — just months before they face voters in Augusts’ retention election," Ramsey told the Tennessee Watchdog website.

Bell's language was very similar.

"It is the state Supreme Court’s job to set execution dates after appeals have been exhausted. They neglected to carry out that duty until recently — just in time for the retention elections. That is more than a little convenient," Bell wrote in a column for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

The idea was also pushed by the Tennessee Watchdog, a conservative news website tied to a network of similar websites funded, in part, by the billionaire Koch Brothers.

"Are TN Supreme Court elections behind sudden death penalty?" one headline asked.

In an audio interview posted on the website, reporter Chris Butler was asked, "Why all of a sudden a flurry of activity?"

"Well, it certainly is a mystery," Butler responded.

"Whether politics has anything to do with the sudden enforcement of the death penalty cases is something I can't answer. But, in terms of timing, it does bring up some interesting questions."

A mystery?

NewsChannel 5 Investigates checked the facts:

During the current term of the Tennessee Supreme Court, four inmates had been executed: Phillip Workman in May 2007, Daryl Holton in September 2007, Steve Henley in February 2009 and Cecil Johnson in December 2009.

Justice Connie Clark was also on the high court for the execution of Sedley Alley in June 2006.

In November 2010, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman heard a challenge filed by death row inmate Stephen Michael West. After hearing testimony about how the state's lethal injection protocol worked, Bonnyman ruled that "the plaintiff has carried its burden to show  that the protocol allows suffocation - death by suffocation while the prisoner is conscious."

Reacting to that ruling, the state revised its protocol in an attempt to ensure that the inmate was indeed unconscious.

As a result, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued stays for four pending executions until that issue could be fully resolved, emphasizing to the lower court that the "heavy burden" was on the inmate.

In March 2011, Bonnyman ruled that the revised protocol was indeed constitutional. The justices later rejected the inmate's appeal of that decision.

But, that same month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized one of the main drugs Tennessee had been using for lethal injections.

That put executions on hold in Tennessee for more than two years.

Then, on Sept. 27, 2013, the Tennessee Department of Correction announced that it had finally come up with a new lethal injection protocol.

Less than a week later, on Oct. 3, the Tennessee Attorney General's Office asked the Supreme Court to re-set execution dates for 10 inmates.

After giving the inmates' attorneys a chance to respond as required by law, in mid-December, the justices began granting the state's requests.

So far, they've set 10 execution dates.

But the timing had everything to do with the state's announcement of a new lethal injection protocol.

That's a history that those critics, who accuse the court of setting execution dates for political reasons, either don't know or have refused to acknowledge.

Back to NC5 Investigates: The Politics of Justice
NewsChannel 5 Investigates

Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.