Liberty and Justice News

Bredesen Worries Lengthy Execution Delays Could Follow Ruling

A Nashville judge whom the departing-governor himself selected for the bench would have done better to show a little “judicial restraint” in her ruling that the state inflicts unconstitutional levels of pain on convicted murderers when they’re put to death by lethal injection.

Gov. Phil Bredesen expressed disappointment Monday that a Davidson County judge struck down Tennessee’s lethal injection procedure as unconstitutional.

The governor said he fears the ruling by Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman will trip up many of the state’s executions while sending Tennessee’s three-step lethal injection method into a legal knot that could take months or even years to untangle.

“Bottom line, (I am) disappointed that she didn’t exercise a little more judicial restraint here but I think that we can work our way through it and win.”

In an opinion released late Friday, Bonnyman ruled that the state’s method for lethal injection was unconstitutional because it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision puts the execution of convicted murderer Stephen Michael West on hold, and Bredesen says many more death row inmates may also be affected.

West was sentenced to death for the 1986 killings of a Union County woman and her teenage daughter.

He was scheduled to be put to death on Nov. 9, but the state Supreme Court delayed the execution to Nov. 30 so the Davidson County Chancery Court could review West’s claims that executed prisoners experience severe pain that is unconstitutional.

West’s attorneys argued that the first drug, sodium thiopental, does not cause prisoners to go completely unconscious before the final two drugs — pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes breathing, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart from beating — are administered, leaving them potentially aware and in agony.

There are 86 inmates on Tennessee’s death row. Six people have been executed since 2000.

Bredesen, who will be termed out of office in January, appointed Bonnyman to her post as a chancellor of the 20th District in Davidson County in 2003. The recent ruling will surely delay future executions, he said.

“It definitely has put things on hold, and how long that is will depend on the courts and also on whatever strategy the attorney general employs to appeal or not appeal this,” he said.

Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bob Cooper, said an appeal is likely but declined to give further details.

The U.S. Supreme Court has opined about the three-drug cocktail used for lethal injection, said Bredesen. The case, which involved two Kentucky prisoners, gave states the OK to continue using this method.

“I would really like to get this resolved in state court, because if you go back into the federal system, I mean it can literally be years while this stuff works its way through the legal system,” Bredesen said.

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