published Monday, April 25th, 2011

Death penalty stuck in limbo in Tennessee

By Brian Haas/The Tennessean

Hamilton County inmates on death row are:

• Leroy Hall, sentenced in March 1992 for first-degree murder

• Marlon Kiser, sentenced in November 2003 for first-degree murder

• Harold Nichols, sentenced in May 1990 for first-degree murder

Source: Tennessee Department of Correction

NASHVILLE — Tennessee has 86 killers on death row and no way to execute them after the state’s supply of a key lethal injection drug was seized by the federal government.

Now, Tennessee has to make a death penalty decision.

If it doesn’t change its lethal injection drug or the Legislature doesn’t pass a law allowing the state to use alternative means of executions — electrocution, hanging, gas chamber or some other method — death row inmates will remain imprisoned indefinitely and families of murder victims will be left waiting for final punishment to be meted out.

“It’s extremely frustrating. We are carrying on our lives, but it’s just such a heavy burden,” said Misti Ellis, whose father, Jerry Hopper, was killed in a shooting rampage in 2005 in Jackson.

“I hope that it’s a procedural bump in the road. I hope they can find some way to resolve it or find a new method. I certainly would not want to see for myself or any other family that feels the same way to have that changed because of a supply problem.”

Hopper’s killer, David Jordan, 47, is second in line to be executed this year. He is scheduled to die Sept. 27.

In less than five months, the state is set to start executing death row inmates again. But, like other states, Tennessee had to turn over its stock of sodium thiopental to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration because of allegations it may have been obtained illegally from an unregulated overseas supplier.

Neither Gov. Bill Haslam’s office nor the Tennessee Department of Correction would say what the state will do about the quandary.

Haslam’s office referred all questions to the Department of Correction.

That department’s spokeswoman, Dorinda Carter, said the commissioner is “still reviewing our options” and is “not ready to discuss them at this point.”

Potential options include switching to another drug, which could lead to renewed legal challenges; switching to other methods such as the electric chair, which would require lawmakers to rewrite death penalty laws; or scrapping the death penalty altogether.

Bills proposing to abolish the state’s death penalty in this year’s legislature have been withdrawn.

Yet the drug shortage is providing one of the most significant challenges to the death penalty in decades, said Deborah Denno, professor at Fordham Law School in New York and a death penalty scholar and critic.

“Within the history of the death penalty, this is a very big deal. We’ve never had a situation like this, ever,” she said. “We’ve never run out of gas for gas chambers or rope for hanging or electrical equipment for electric chairs.”


Sodium thiopental has long been used as the first in a three-drug cocktail administered to death row inmates. Tennessee’s procedures call for 5 grams of the drug, used to sedate the inmate. That is followed by 200 mg of pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate. Finally, 200 ml of potassium chloride is administered to stop the inmate’s heart.

Denno said lethal injection was first widely adopted in 1982 as an alternative to the electric chair, which was increasingly being challenged as unconstitutionally cruel or unusual punishment.

Tennessee made the switch in 1998 for that very reason, said former Democratic Tennessee Rep. Wayne Ritchie, of Knoxville, who helped work on the legislation.

“There was concern by the sponsor that anything other than lethal injection might be found unconstitutional and this bill was an effort to bolster the constitutionality of Tennessee’s death penalty law,” Ritchie said.

Today, state law says all death row inmates convicted after 1999 must be executed using lethal injection. Prisoners convicted before that year can choose between lethal injection or the electric chair.


Some states have botched lethal injections, with some taking hours to kill the inmate, Denno said.

Attorneys for several Tennessee death row inmates in recent months have had success in challenging the state’s method of determining whether inmates are truly unconscious during lethal injections. Those challenges continue to bounce from court to court on appeals, delaying all executions.

But with few exceptions, lethal injection has withstood continual challenges to its constitutionality. It continued largely unimpeded until late last year, when sole U.S. supplier Hospira stopped supplying sodium thiopental, citing anti-death penalty pressure from Italy, where it is produced.

Some states turned to overseas suppliers for stocks of the drug. A federal lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., accuses multiple states — Tennessee included — of possibly violating drug import laws by purchasing thiopental from a British company called Dream Pharma, run out of the back of a London driving school.

Carter said the Tennessee Department of Correction obtained its supply domestically, but the department has refused requests to reveal its source, and documents detailing the purchase have been redacted.

pro and con

Death penalty opponents are greeting the temporary shutdown of most states’ executions as welcome, but by no means a victory.

“It’s a bump in the road. I wish we could do away with the death penalty period,” said the Rev. James “Tex” Thomas. “What good is it knowing that you’re going to die anyways? If it were me, if you’re going to get me, get me right now.”

Thomas ministered to the last person to be executed in Tennessee, triple-murderer Cecil Johnson, who died by lethal injection Dec. 2, 2009.

The Rev. Stacy Rector, with Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the current supply problems are irrelevant to their larger concerns.

“It is a huge problem, but it doesn’t get at the real core issue, which is, can we as a society maintain the death penalty system given all of its problems?” she said. “I think it’s just one more symptom of a huge problem that we don’t need to have. We could be spending our energy and our resources focusing more on helping murder victims’ families to heal.”

But proponents say that executions are an important part of ensuring that justice is done in Tennessee.

“What I want is to do whatever it takes to discourage people from killing people,” said State Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, who has filed several bills this year to add to the list of factors that make murderers eligible for the death penalty, like gang warfare and random killings.

If Tennessee is to continue executing death row inmates, it has few options. Ohio and Oklahoma have already used an anesthetic called pentobarbital that is commonly used in animal euthanasia. Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi have also committed to the switch.

Tennessee’s Department of Correction has said that it would consider pentobarbital.

“To change the protocol in Tennessee, we wouldn’t require legislation or a change in statute,” Carter has said. “It would be a departmental review and then we could put it into play right away.”

Rich said he would be satisfied with even scrapping lethal injection for other methods altogether, though there is no legislation pending that would allow that.

“If they want to paint us into the corner and stop us from having lethal injection, then I certainly have no problem with hanging or putting someone to death with a firing squad,” he said.

But he said he has not heard any talk in the legislature about rewriting the state’s death penalty laws. He said any such change would have to be carefully handled to stand up to legal challenges.

“I think this is an issue we have to approach with caution so we do the right thing,” he said.

Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or

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chad77 said...

Stones can be legally obtained right here locally.... Let’s just go back to public stoning! I promise it will lower crime rate! Cruel and unusual? Not as cruel and unusual as murdering someone on purpose, these convicted murders did not kill by accident they did it with forethought and had intent.

April 25, 2011 at 9:13 a.m.
hrtofluv said...

Were the people they murdered sedated first? I doubt it! Get on with it? Why do laws insist they get something the people they murdered didn't get? I'm tied of paying taxes to support these criminals for life when they were sentenced to the death penalty. Good gracious - that one from Hamilton County was sentenced in 1992 - that's twenty years of my taxes?! Give me a break - if his lawyers haven't figured out how to get him off in twenty years - bet he's guilty! I would like to know how many sitting on death row are before the 1999 law? The ones convicted before that - need to line them up for the electric chair ride! And to see we have 86 waiting - how come none were excuted in 2010?! Why can't they just use what hospitals give everyone before surgery? Surely they can obtain that without worrying about getting it legally! TDOC - Please come up with solutions and fast! Another day just went by with nothing getting done!

April 25, 2011 at 9:37 a.m.
alohaboy said...

chad sounds like he supports Sharia Law, he may run into some strong opposition to his views in this Christian Nation.

April 25, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.
chad77 said...

@alohaboy: Jews have been known to stone a few people. It is not just a muslim thing. Just like hanging was not only done to black folk, many others have died from a noose. I would like the guillotine to come back into vogue. The convicted murder gets more rights and a humane treatment then their victims. It is a Christian country; so let the convict have a short chance to be witnessed too, pray that he asks Jesus to forgive him, and then off with his head!

April 25, 2011 at 3:20 p.m.
alohaboy said...

The Jews don't stone people in today's society and, we too, have moved on in our punishments. Just recently there was a guy released from the Texas Death Row, after 27 years, who was innocent and not just "not guilty".

April 25, 2011 at 4:06 p.m.
rockman12 said...

Fry'em, gas'em, or let'em swing! Who cares how it is done? That's 86 places to cut spending. Just get it done and stop waiting our tax money on them!!!

April 25, 2011 at 4:31 p.m.
chad77 said...

@alohaboy: We will just let the death row inmates stay at your house since you love them so much. Was the guy not guilty or let go on a technicality like usual. You said “We have moved on in punishment” I say “We have degraded in punishment not only in our prisons but also at home. If we keep going down this liberal path we are sure to become an anarchist land.

April 25, 2011 at 5:05 p.m.
annette said...

I understand peoples anger in wanting some of these men dead. Id want to kill anyone who hurt any of my loved ones too, Were ALL capable of murder if our right buttons are pushed..Not all of the guys on TN deathrow have killed just because they are bad. some have killed because someone killed their loved one. or killed the man that run off with thier wife, NOT right i know but love can make you do crazy stuff.

what would you do if you caught a man sexually abusing your 2 year old child?

Did Philip Workman really deserve to die? yes he robbed but we all know it wasnt his bullet that killed the cop. it was another cops bullet. The TN Justice system doesnt always play fairly. It sometimes works on cover ups and who knows who. whos friends they can get on the Jury to get the out come they want. Trust me i know.. I also know that a LIFE in prison is worse than peace in death. some will say but they still get to see their loved ones, not true for most, most familys give up on them within 5 years. making sorry excuses as to why they cant visit or no longer take their collect calls. yes they get to walk around, watch tv, eat their meals. its NOT ALL tax money either they DO pay board and keep out of their wages. "the ones that work that is"

Im kind of a fence sitter because i would happly click a switch for some of the men that sit on deathrows across the country. But then i wouldnt want them to have peace in death either. BUT for me personally if i had of killed someone. Id want a quick exit living a life time of not having anyone who truely cares, having to watch my back incase someone decided they didnt like me that day and were gonna stab me in the yard. young and old guys are taken advantage of everyday in prisons across the USA. do you know what its like to have to listen to someone being raped. knowing you cant help them for fear of you own safety? Im guessing if you knew what the prison system was truely like you wouldnt be so quick to want them all to die. if pain and struggle is what your all looking for? in my eyes death isnt justice for a loved one.

April 25, 2011 at 5:39 p.m.
Echo said...

Alternatives to Lethal Injection in the U.S. 1. Guillotine - too hard to spell, too French. 2. Stoning - takes too long, too many people, potential for getting hit with wild throws. 3. Gas Chamber - Efficient, but too Nazi. 4. Firing squad - Messy. Has an honor component that really should be reserved for military use only, not common criminals. 5. Breaking wheel - This has old world flair, but can take days Victims families get dibs on going medieval on the condemned.I'd like to see the killers of Channon Christian, and Hugh Newsom get this one. 6. Necklace - Used gasoline soaked tire is hung around condemned and set ablaze. Origins in Africa. 7. Public hanging - Best theater and deterrent effect with a great American Tradition.

April 25, 2011 at 8:09 p.m.
MasterChefLen said...

Change the method to firing squad. The criminals seem to have all the rights and the victims pay the price. That is Liberalism for you.

April 25, 2011 at 8:49 p.m.
rolando said...

Absolutely right, MasterCh[i]ef.

Here's an idea...let the families of the victims bring their own rifle, shotgun, Model 1911, etc, along with their own ammo and let them execute the sentence. Line them up and "With ball ammo, lock and load. Fire!" Hopefully, every one would be a gutshot.

Bingo - no cost to the state...other than the crematory's gas bill.

April 25, 2011 at 9:07 p.m.
hrtofluv said...

annette - if it were so much easier on the murderers to get executed then sit in prison (cause "it's a hard life to live"); then why are they fighting the execution?! They don't wanna die - that's why they look for every loophole and technicality they can and it gets stayed over and over through every appeal possible. Some of them have been sitting there longer than I have been born!!! Yes - I do know that some people maybe innocent (but that is a very small number-you have to admit that). And yes - some have killed the rapist of their child - I believe that is justifiable homicide (which equates to no death penalty).
But the truth is that executions would happen more frequently if they weren't fighting it tooth and nail to stop it. So, tell me why? If prison life and their "supposed guilt" is bothering them so much - drop all appeals and take your punishment. I know there have been a few cases where the murderer has pled guilty and asked for the death penalty - and that has taken years before their execution! Why must it take so long?!
I do think the townhall hangings should make a comeback. Cheap and great deterrent!

April 26, 2011 at 10:28 a.m.
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