Possible Problems With Lethal Injection Drugs Stop Tennessee Execution

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Death Penalty

Meanwhile in South Carolina, the state Supreme Court delays a planned execution by firing squad.

Scott Shackford |

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(Felipe Caparros Cruz / Dreamstime.com)

A scheduled execution in Tennessee Thursday night was put on temporary hold by the governor, but it’s not entirely clear why.

Oscar Franklin Smith, 72, was scheduled to be executed via lethal injection, but one hour before the deed was to be done, Gov. Bill Lee issued a temporary reprieve. A statement from the governor said that there was an “oversight in preparation for lethal injection,” but didn’t explain what the issues were.

The reprieve will last until the start of June.

The drugs states have been using to execute prisoners have become the source of controversy in recent years, particularly in Tennessee. Smith was actually scheduled to be executed back in 2020, but his lawyers filed a complaint over the three-drug cocktail they had planned to use. The cocktail would have stopped the prisoner’s heart, but it was possible for him to remain conscious for several minutes and to feel searing pain in his veins. One of the drugs, midazolam, which is supposed to render the prisoner unconscious, has failed to work properly in some executions.

Smith’s defense attorney, Kelley Henry, told The Tennessean that she believes the prison likely mishandled the execution drugs. She had requested that the Tennessee Department of Correction provide proof that the drugs had met all the appropriate testing standards but had not gotten a response prior to the governor’s reprieve.

Smith was sentenced to death in 1990 after he was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for killing his wife and her two teenage sons from another marriage. Smith has maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment. He has been trying to get courts to consider whether new DNA evidence on one of the murder weapons—DNA that doesn’t match his—could prove his innocence. But both the state’s Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have rejected the effort.

Meanwhile, a rare execution by firing squad scheduled to happen next week has been temporarily put on hold by South Carolina’s Supreme Court. Death row inmate Richard Moore had been scheduled to be put to death on April 29. Because of the aforementioned issues with lethal injection cocktails, South Carolina changed its execution methods in 2021 to either the electric chair or firing squad.

Moore is fighting the execution, his attorneys arguing that the state cannot retroactively change the method of execution on him. On Wednesday the South Carolina Supreme Court put out a brief order giving Moore a temporary stay of execution. The order did not explain why but said an explanation of the order that would establish the parameters of the stay would soon follow.

Smith and Moore may have survived so far, but over in Texas, prisoner Carl Wayne Buntion was put to death last night via lethal injection. Buntion, 78, was Texas’ oldest death-row inmate, sentenced for killing a Houston police officer in 1990. He was given a lethal dose of the sedative pentobarbital, and after a few last breaths, he was pronounced dead at 6:39 p.m.

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