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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee visited Alcoa High School's mechatronics lab Friday morning Dec. 6, 2019. (Tom Sherlin/The Daily Times via AP)

NASHVILLE — During his first year as Tennessee's governor, businessman Bill Lee said the three executions carried out under his watch were the toughest things he had to deal with.

"Those days are the most difficult days of the year for me as governor," Lee said of overseeing the carrying out of death sentences.

The most recent execution involved the Dec. 5 death by electric chair of 53-year-old Lee Hall of Chattanooga for the 1991 murder of his girlfriend, Traci Crozier.

"It's very sobering, and somber and difficult," Lee, a businessman, said in a wide-ranging Times Free Press interview Thursday as he nears his first-year anniversary of being sworn in last January as governor.

A religious conservative, Lee said "I treat each case uniquely. I spend weeks prior to those days evaluating the case and taking in all the information that's available to me. And it's a really difficult decision. And it turns out to be a really difficult day."

On the day of an execution, Lee said, he and his wife, Maria, "and a small group of friends gather together. I spend the day alone on those days. I don't work generally, most of the time on those days."

Asked what he does as an execution looms and when he gets word from Department of Correction officials that the execution has occurred, the governor said "we pray and we spend time quietly together through that period."

The governor was reluctant to say what he prays about, saying, "No, that would be private. We just pray."

A day before the execution, courts as well as Lee declined to stay the execution, with the governor saying at the time that "the justice system has extensively reviewed Lee Hall's case over the course of almost 30 years, including additional review and rulings by the Tennessee Supreme Court yesterday and today. The judgment and sentence stand based on these rulings, and I will not intervene in this case."

Tennessee allows inmates to choose to die through lethal injection or electrocution. Hall chose the electric chair. A group of death penalty opponents gathered in a nearby field and held their own prayer vigil for Hall, who was the sixth Tennessee Death Row inmate executed in the past 16 months, The Nashville Scene reported.

Nearby in a separate area, five people stood with a large picture of Crozier.

During Hall's execution, there were reports from some onlookers that they saw a trail of vapor around the inmate's head, The Tennessean reported.

Asked about that week by reporters, Lee said "that particular inmate's desire was to ... his choice as to what type of execution ... he made that choice. And they carried that out professionally, and I trusted that process was done well."

The governor can expect more tough days ahead. Two more executions are set for 2020 as Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery presses courts to take final action in longstanding death penalty cases at a time when the number of executions is falling in the U.S.

And in September, Slatery asked courts to set executions for nine additional Death Row inmates, including another Chattanooga man, Harold Wayne Nichols, who was convicted in the 1988 rape and murder of Karen Pulley in her Chattanooga home.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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