Tennessee pauses executions till year’s end to review lethal injection procedures

People holding hands and praying
Protesters of capital punishment pray on prison grounds before the scheduled April 21 execution of inmate Oscar Smith.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Tennessee is pausing executions to enable an independent review of its lethal injection procedures after a testing oversight forced the state to call off the execution of Oscar Smith an hour before he was to die this month.

A federal public defender praised Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee for his “great leadership” in launching the review.

Former U.S. Atty. Ed Stanton will review circumstances that led to the execution chemicals being tested only for potency and sterility but not for endotoxins in Smith’s case. Stanton will also review the clarity of the lethal-injection process manual and Tennessee Department of Correction staffing considerations, Lee said in a statement.


“I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said. “However, the death penalty is an extremely serious matter, and I expect the Tennessee Department of Correction to leave no question that procedures are correctly followed.”

His statement said the pause would remain in effect through the end of the year to allow time for the review and corrective action.

Lee has not explained exactly why the execution of Smith was delayed. He issued a brief statement April 21 saying that, “due to an oversight in preparation for lethal injection, the scheduled execution of Oscar Smith will not move forward tonight. I am granting a temporary reprieve while we address Tennessee Department of Correction protocol.”

A South Carolina death row inmate scheduled for execution later this month has chosen to die by firing squad rather than in the electric chair.

April 15, 2022

The move comes after Smith’s attorneys asked last week for a moratorium on executions and a review of the state’s execution protocols.

“Gov. Lee’s decision to pause executions pending an independent review of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol shows great leadership. The use of compounded drugs in the context of lethal injection is fraught with risk. The failure to test for endotoxins is a violation of the protocol. Gov. Lee did the right thing by stopping executions because of this breach,” Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry said.

Henry said last week that the night before Smith’s execution, she requested the results of tests for “potency, sterility and endotoxins” that are supposed to be carried out on the execution drugs if they are obtained from a compounding pharmacy. She had received no response. Henry suspects that at least two of the three execution drugs were compounded rather than commercially manufactured, she said, although secrecy rules surrounding Tennessee executions make it difficult to know for certain.


Although lethal injection was adopted as a supposedly humane alternative to the electric chair, it has been the subject of consistent problems and lawsuits.

The drop in the number of executions this year was due in part to the pandemic but also came during a decline in support for the death penalty.

Dec. 17, 2021

Tennessee uses a three-drug series to put inmates to death: midazolam, a sedative to render the inmate unconscious; vecuronium bromide, to paralyze the inmate; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart. Officials have said the inmates are unconscious and unable to feel pain. Expert witnesses for inmates, however, have said the inmates would feel like they were drowning, suffocating and being burned alive, all while unable to move or call out.

Of the seven inmates Tennessee has put to death since 2018 — when Tennessee ended a previous moratorium on executions stretching back to 2009 — five have chosen to die in the electric chair. Smith declined to make a choice, meaning that he was scheduled to be executed by the state’s preferred method of lethal injection.

Smith was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing and shooting his estranged wife, Judith Smith, and her teenage sons, Jason and Chad Burnett, at their Nashville home Oct. 1, 1989. At 72, Smith is the oldest inmate on Tennessee’s death row. His reprieve expires June 1, after which the state Supreme Court will set a new execution date.