Two top officials in the Tennessee Department of Corrections have been fired after an independent report revealed the state has not complied with its own lethal injection protocol since it resumed executions in 2018.
Last May, Gov. Bill Lee paused all executions to allow for a third-party investigation into “operational failures” in Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol after an undisclosed “technical oversight” led the governor to call off the execution of Oscar Smith on April 21.
Former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton, who was appointed to conduct the independent review, released a detailed report last month. It found that lethal injection drugs were not tested as required by Tennessee’s protocol before the seven executions conducted in 2018 or before the planned execution of Mr. Smith.
Indeed, the review found that corrections officials failed to tell the pharmacy that made and tested lethal injection drugs that it was required to test all injection chemicals for endotoxins. The State never even gave the pharmacy a copy of the lethal injection protocol, the report revealed.
The report further showed that Tennessee decided in 2018 to use the sedative midazolam in its three-drug protocol even after a pharmacist warned state officials the drug “‘does not elicit strong analgesic effects,′ meaning ‘the subjects may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs.'”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in 2018 that Tennessee was likely to inflict “several minutes of torturous pain” on Billy Irick, who presented undisputed evidence that the three-drug protocol “will cause him to experience sensations of drowning, suffocating, and being burned alive from the inside out.”
Autopsy reports have revealed that lethal injection causes severe pain and severe respiratory distress with associated sensations of drowning, asphyxiation, panic, and terror in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Tennessee’s unnamed executioner has overseen 13 executions despite having no formal healthcare training, the report found, adding that it would be difficult to find someone with the necessary medical training to carry out executions because of the Hippocratic oath.
The independent review called out TDOC leadership for making one individual responsible for the “enormous task” of procuring and verifying lethal injection drugs “with zero guidance on how to carry out these tasks.” This system “does not allow for any checks and balances whatsoever,” the report found, adding that it “seems like an abdication of responsibility by TDOC leadership and the reason for the failures to comply with the current Protocol.”
TDOC leadership “viewed the lethal injection process through a tunnel-vision, result-oriented lens,” the report found, and failed to provide corrections staff “with the necessary guidance and counsel needed to ensure that Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol was thorough, consistent, and followed.”
TDOC deputy commissioner and general counsel Debra Inglis and inspector general Kelly Young were fired a day before the governor publicly released the report, which found that former TDOC commissioner Tony Parker relied on Ms. Inglis, the attorney general’s office, and the state’s execution drug procurer to create the 2018 protocol, and then failed to ensure it was followed.
“The fact of the matter is not one TDOC employee made it their duty to understand the current Protocol’s testing requirements and ensure compliance,” the report said.
The findings are “troubling” and “shocking,” Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry said in a statement. “What we learned today is that secrecy in our state’s execution process breeds a lack of accountability, sloppiness, and a high risk of horrifying mistakes.”
Tennessee is not the only state facing serious questions about its execution protocols and lack of transparency.
On Friday, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs ordered an independent review of the state’s lethal injection drug and gas chamber chemical procurement process, execution protocols, and staff training and experience.
In November, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey suspended executions to allow for a “top-to-bottom review” of the state’s execution process.
And in Oklahoma, Attorney General Gentner Drummond asked the state court last week to slow down the pace of executions, stating that executing a person roughly every 30 days was placing too much of a burden on prison staff.