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TN pursues new death penalty drug

4:56 PM, Jan 4, 2013   |    comments
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By Brian Haas | The Tennessean

No death row inmates are scheduled to die in Tennessee anytime soon.


The state's entire stock of a key lethal injection drug was confiscated by the federal government in March 2011 amid questions about whether it was legally obtained, and the state hasn't yet figured out how -- or when -- it plans to execute inmates.

But Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said the state's lethal injection protocol is a top priority and he is pursuing alternative drugs. He declined to detail what options he was considering, but other states have turned to an alternative drug used in animal euthanasia.

"I've been a little cautious talking about this because some of it turns into litigation," Schofield said in a recent interview. "I don't have a time frame, but it's a matter of urgency for us. We have been pushing and working. I want to assure that we haven't been sitting on our hands."

Eighty-four people sit on Tennessee's death row. Sixty-seven have been there for more than 10 years. Six prisoners have been executed since 1960.

For death penalty opponents, the sudden shortage in 2011 of the anesthetic sodium thiopental has been a godsend.

Five states in recent years decided it was easier and cheaper to do away with their death penalties than to keep them.

"We're very relieved," said the Rev. Stacy Rector, with Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

"Unfortunately for us, until we get the (death penalty) statute repealed, it's always going to be a concern."

But death penalty advocates say the drug shortage and Tennessee's delay in finding an alternative drug -- such as pentobarbital, which has been used in other states, including Ohio and Alabama -- are preventing justice from being carried out.

"That's something that the people of Tennessee need to bring to the governor's attention," said Michael Rushford, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which helps litigate in support of the death penalty.

"This isn't the legal system failing; it's politics. It's really kind of a slap in the face to state voters and to the victims who wait for justice, when a politician can stop the entire process."

The Tennessee Attorney General's Office, which requests execution dates, said it also is waiting for orders to proceed.

"We will file the appropriate motions to set executions as soon as the executive branch indicates its readiness to proceed with executions," said spokeswoman Sharon Curtis-Flair.

Gov. Bill Haslam's office said the Department of Correction is continuing to explore options.

Both sides are frustrated

As of today, Tennessee's death penalty protocol is the same as it was when the state legislature made lethal injection the only way to execute inmates in 1998. The condemned are strapped to a gurney and then injected with three separate chemicals.

Officials start with the sodium thiopental, which puts the inmate to sleep. Then, they inject pancuronium bromide, which stops the inmate's breathing. Finally, they administer potassium chloride, which stops the inmate's heart.

The first drug has been key to staving off challenges that lethal injection is "cruel and unusual punishment," in that it is supposed to render the entire process painless.

In late 2010, however, the sole supplier of sodium thiopental stopped supplying the drug, leading to shortages across the nation. Attempts to obtain the drug overseas by states, including Tennessee, led to a federal lawsuit and the seizure of those drugs.

In the meantime, rather than fight to maintain the old methods, some states have turned to pentobarbital, which is commonly used to euthanize animals.

When asked if Tennessee was considering such a switch, Schofield would not say.

"There are a couple that we're looking at. I'd just prefer not to say which one," he said. "Whatever drug we choose, it has to have the backing and the knowledge that it will work and meet the requirements of the court."

Years of delays

In November 2010, Stephen Michael West was ready to die. A last-second appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court stopped his execution 30 hours before he was to be put to death.

West was convicted in 1986 in the murder of Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, in Union County. The delays in his case illustrate the maddening complexity of the death penalty for supporters, who want swift justice, and opponents, who say such delays prove the system is broken.

West was first scheduled for execution in 2001, but it was stayed. He was scheduled for execution in early November 2010, but it was delayed until late November, and then again indefinitely delayed.

"I don't know how you find a system any more wasteful than the death penalty system," said Rector, with Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "We don't know how much we're spending on a system that's executed six people since 1960."

But those delays are equally frustrating for people such as Eddie Campbell of Andersonville.

His uncle, Jack Romines, was married to Wanda Romines when West murdered her. Jack Romines died four years ago.

"The family's dying off. He never got to see any justice for his family. That's just terrible," Campbell said. "It's a real slap in the face."

Campbell said he's been waiting for answers for years as to why his family hasn't seen justice yet.

"Somebody should be able to give me a reason for that. I don't know why they're not," he said. "They need to step up to the plate and do their job or stand aside and let somebody else."

Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or bhaas@tennessean.com.

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