by Judson Phillips


On February 20, 2020, Nicholas Todd Sutton was executed by the State of Tennessee.

He will be the last person Tennessee executes for a very long time.

On April 22, 2022, Oscar Franklin Smith was supposed to be executed by lethal injection but was granted a temporary reprieve by Governor Bill Lee because of a “technical oversight” in the lethal injection process.

Disturbingly, the Governor’s office and the Tennessee Department of Corrections have refused to disclose what this “oversight” was.

The length of time it takes for the execution of a convicted murderer has been a point of contention for conservatives, victims’ families and victims’ rights organizations. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional and all inmates on death row had their sentences commuted to life. In 1976, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty could be constitutional. In 1977, Tennessee reenacted a death penalty statute and by 1979, convicted murderers were again being sent to death row.

By the mid 1990’s, there were complaints that convicted murderers had been on death row for over a decade with no real execution date in sight. The left complained that the only reason murderers were receiving the death penalty was their attorneys were incompetent. At the state level, the left complained that executing murderers by electrocution was barbaric. So, two great compromises were worked out. And as with most compromises, the left gets what it wants, and conservatives never do.

In 1996, Congress passes the Anti-terrorism and effective death penalty act. It was supposed to eliminate endless appeals for death row inmates and to provide federal funds to allow for effective representation. The endless appeals were not ended, but the federal funds spigot was turned on so those endless appeals could be funded.

At the state level, the legislature agreed to change the method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection. Even after that change, murderers made the same claims about the horrible brutality of lethal injection. Activists went so far as to pressure drug manufacturers to not sell their drugs to states that were going to use them in executions.

As Governor, Bill Lee has presided over four executions. When covid hit, he used that as an excuse to stop executions for two years and now has stopped the most recent execution. Additionally, Lee has suspended all executions in Tennessee through 2022. Conveniently, executions will not resume until after his election for a second term as governor.

What makes me think we are about to see the end of the death penalty in Tennessee, at least for a few decades?

In announcing the halt in executions, Lee also announced a review the execution process. One of the first rules in politics is, when you want cover for a politically unpopular decision, you appoint an “independent” committee or expert to review the decision. And before you appoint the committee or expert, you find someone who will reach the conclusion you want.

Tennessee has thousands of conservatives who would have been well qualified to conduct this “investigation.” Who did Lee choose? He chose Ed Stanton of Memphis. Stanton is the former United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, appointed by Barrack Obama. He was also nominated by Obama to become a federal judge, though he was never confirmed.

Why would Lee appoint a liberal Democrat to that position?

Lee wants a report that indicts the death penalty. And once Lee is a lame duck governor, I believe he will use that report to commute the sentences of all on death row to life in prison.

If Bill Lee commutes all the death sentences, it will impact everyone sentenced to death in Tennessee as of the date of the commutations. Anyone sentenced to death after that date would have all their appeals.

Oscar Franklin Smith has been on death row for 32 years. If the appeals process takes that long for murderers newly sentenced to death, it could be the middle of the century before Tennessee sees another execution.

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Judson Phillips is a long time conservative pundit and founder of Tea Party Nation.