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Public defenders call for moratorium on executions in Tennessee after ‘temporary reprieve’ for death row inmate

By Mallika Kallingal and Hannah Sarisohn, CNN

Federal public defenders in Tennessee are calling for a statewide moratorium on executions and an independent commission to study the state’s executions after a death row inmate was granted a temporary reprieve minutes before his execution last week, according to a letter addressed to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

Oscar Smith was scheduled to be executed last week for the 1989 murders of his wife, Judith Smith, and her two minor children, Chad and Jason Burnett, in Nashville.

Lee declined to intervene in Smith’s case earlier, setting the 72-year-old inmate up to be the first person executed in the state since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

But, moments before the scheduled execution, Lee granted Smith a temporary reprieve due to an “oversight in preparation for lethal injection,” he said in a tweet.

“The secrecy that shrouds the execution process in Tennessee is troubling, even more so where now one week later we still don’t know what happened to cause the last-minute delay,” Smith’s attorneys said in their letter.

They added there can be no trust in the Department of Correction to carry out an execution without first conducting an independent investigation of the execution protocol. The attorneys’ letter further addressed concerns about the type of drugs used in the state’s injection protocol, as well as the department of corrections handling of “high-risk sterile injectables.”

“Mr. Smith was sentenced to death, he wasn’t sentenced to this limbo of unknowing,” Amy Harwell, one of Smith’s attorneys, said at a Thursday news conference. “That level of secrecy, from where the things go from here and what already happened is not something that’s intrinsic to this process.”

Community leaders also said the current situation is causing the family more trauma.

“Mr. Smith was taking what he believed to be his last communion, while family members of Judith Smith and Chad and Jason Burnett had gathered at the prison for the execution. An execution this family has been told for over three decades that they need in order to heal,” Stacy Rector, the executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said at the news conference.

There is nothing about killing an elderly man that makes the state safer, Rector added. “If Tennesseans truly want to embrace a culture of life, we should be focused on healing and on crime prevention,” she said.

Smith is the oldest person on Tennessee’s death row.

On Thursday, both of Smith’s attorneys, along with community religious leaders, urged Tennessee’s governor to take authoritative action to grant clemency without involving legal action from the courts.

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