A Chattanooga man, convicted of murder in a 1983 St. Elmo slaying, will be the state’s benchmark case in a national debate over whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.
Edward Jerome Harbison was just days from execution last September when U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that Tennessee’s lethal injection procedure violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution because it may cause cruel and unusual pain and suffering for the person being executed.
That decision came after a condemned Kentucky inmate sued to have his execution halted, claiming the three-drug mix used in executions might cause pain that no one could see because the first drug in the cocktail paralyzed the inmate. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled three weeks ago that Kentucky’s use of lethal injection was not cruel and unusual.
“Now, every state is going to look at their method of lethal injection to see how close it is to Kentucky’s,” said Dwight Aarons, a sentencing expert at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “Once the state is satisfied that it’s close enough to Kentucky, they will move forward.”
William Earl Lynd, 53, was executed in Georgia on Tuesday evening, becoming the first inmate put to death since the Supreme Court ruling.
Mr. Harbison’s case likely is going to be Tennessee’s benchmark, Mr. Aarons said.
Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the state has begun the first step in the legal back-and-forth with Mr. Harbison’s defense.
“We have asked and been granted by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals a briefing schedule in the Edward Jerome Harbison case,” Ms. Curtis-Flair said in a written statement.
That schedule opens the door for rapid-fire motions from the state and Mr. Harbison’s lawyers, Mr. Aarons said.
“It’s a chance for a defendant to look at every step in the execution process and compare that to Kentucky,” Mr. Aarons said. “If they can find any differences, that might be their chance to claim that the process is cruel and unusual.”
Ms. Curtis-Flair said the state will use the Harbison case to gauge whether a second condemned man, Pervis T. Payne, should be put to death. His execution also was delayed because of the lethal-injection debate. Mr. Payne was convicted for the 1987 stabbing deaths of 28-year-old Charisse Christopher and her two-year-old daughter Lacie.
The state is “in the process of evaluating our options” in the Payne case as the Harbison appeal moves forward, Ms. Curtis-Flair wrote.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered a 90-day moratorium on executions earlier this spring, citing the need for a study into how the state executed convicts. That ended earlier this week when Correction Commissioner George M. Little submitted a report noting some clarifications on how the state should conduct the procedure but with no major changes.
As Tennessee’s pending death sentences play out in court, 13 other deaths are scheduled across the United States before November. Five of those are in Texas alone, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
If Mr. Harbison or Mr. Payne aren’t executed first, Tennessee’s next execution is set for April 2009, according to Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorenda Carter. Michael Dale Rimmer is scheduled to be executed for the 1997 death of his former girlfriend, 41-year-old Ricci Ellsworth.
Mr. Harbison was convicted in the death of Edith Russell, 62, who along with her husband hired Mr. Harbison for periodic repairs at her Ochs Highway home. Police said Mr. Harbison confessed to beating the woman to death with a marble vase when she found him burglarizing the house.
Mr. Harbison said the confession was coerced because police threatened to arrest his girlfriend and take away her children.
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...