|Screenshot from "Rectify" (2013), a TV Series by Ray McKinnon|
with Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, and J. Smith-Cameron.
Thirty-four inmates are volleyed between life and death as the state grapples with lawsuits on the constitutionality of legal injection and the electric chair
Donnie Johnson has spent nearly half of his life waiting to die. In 1985, the Memphis camping equipment center staffer was found guilty of suffocating his wife, Connie, with a plastic garbage bag. Since his conviction, he’s maintained his innocence; insisting that a work‐release inmate murdered his wife, and that he only helped dispose of the body at a nearby shopping center out of fear for his life.
The 64‐year‐old death row inmate, who stays at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution on the western outskirts of Nashville, has twice been scheduled to die.
Johnson, whose latest execution date on 24 March was indefinitely postponed, is one of 69 inmates currently locked up on Tennessee’s death row. The inmates’ lives now hang in the balance of a pair of lawsuits contesting whether the state’s two execution methods, lethal injection and the electric chair, illegally subject them to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of their constitutional rights. A court last week halted all executions until the current legal challenges are resolved.
Tennessee’s courtrooms have become one of the latest battlegrounds over how prisoners sentenced to death are executed. Those challenges – which gained national attention last year after several botched executions ahead of the US supreme court’s landmark lethal injection case later this month – come at a time when some residents of the conservative southern state are showing signs of shifting their views on the death penalty.
Since Tennessee’s last execution in 2009, lawyers have argued over numerous parts of the capital punishment process. Following a series of court rulings, the state has switched up the deadly drug used in its executions, concealed the identities of people administering lethal injection drugs to inmates, and brought back the electric chair as a backup execution method in case its dwindling supply of lethal injection drugs runs out. Those legal fights, largely taking place over the past two years, occurred as former Democratic attorney general Robert Cooper embarked on an unprecedented effort to schedule executions in a state that has only killed six inmates since the turn of the century.
Thirty‐four Tennessee death‐row inmates are now challenging whether the state’s procedures for both execution methods are unnecessarily cruel.
[Kelly Henry, a capital habeas unit supervisor with the Tennessee federal public defender’s office] questions the broader use of the death penalty in Tennessee. She says the process, particularly when execution dates are delayed, can trigger post‐traumatic stress disorder due to the psychological torture involved. Case in point: one of her past clients had four stays of execution before which he washed down his cell for the next inmate, packed up his belongings and divided them up for his family members. Three days before an execution, Henry says, inmates are moved to an 8ft‐by‐10ft cell, placed under 24‐hour observation, and strip‐searched before all visitations.
“It’s surreal,” Henry says. “All this complete dehumanization of themselves to make sure they don’t kill themselves before they kill them.”
Source: The Guardian, Max Blau, April 19, 2015
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