A brief reprieve may be over for inmates on Tennessee's death row, as the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Wednesday for executions by injection to resume in this country.
Within hours of the ruling, the Tennessee attorney general's office was preparing to ask the courts to lift stays of execution on several inmates whose scheduled execution dates passed months ago.
Executions have been on hold around the country while the high court considered a Kentucky case that questioned whether injection is a humane method of execution. On Wednesday, the court ruled that it is, allowing the most frequently used method of execution in this country to resume.
For Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a death penalty supporter, the ruling came as a validation. "What it means is that the Supreme Court has said, as I've been maintaining for five years, I guess now, is that lethal injection is a legitimate constitutional method of execution," Bredesen said.
If executions resume in Tennessee, they probably will begin with the case of Edward Jerome Harbison, who was scheduled to die in January for beating an elderly woman to death while robbing her home. But questions about Tennessee's lethal injection protocols prompted first a federal judge and then the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to order a stay of execution not just for Harbison, but for every lethal injection death penalty case in the state in September.
State moves forward
Tennessee, like Kentucky and many other states, administers a three-drug cocktail at executions: a sedative, then a paralytic, and finally a drug to stop the heart and lungs. The issue that concerned the courts is whether there are enough safeguards in place to guarantee that the drugs are administered properly, and in the right order. If not, a prisoner can endure an excruciating death, wide awake and unable to move as the final lethal injection kills him.
As far as the Tennessee attorney general's office is concerned, the Supreme Court ruling settles the matter.
"We think that the Supreme Court's decision … supports the state's position in Harbison that its lethal injection procedure is constitutional," the office said in a statement Wednesday. "The state will file a motion promptly asking the 6th Circuit to allow the Harbison appeal to go forward."
If the 6th Circuit lifts its stay of execution, it would be up to the state Supreme Court to set a new execution date.
Harbison's attorney, Steve Kissinger, told The Associated Press that his appeal would go forward and that the Kentucky case ruling did not an swer all the questions he had raised.
Two other Tennessee inmates have been granted stays of execution pending the outcomes of both the Kentucky case and the Harbison case.
A federal judge issued a stay of execution in December for Paul Dennis Reid, who has been sentenced to death multiple times for a series of slayings at Middle Tennessee fast-food restaurants. Earlier that same month, another federal judge postponed the execution of Pervis Payne, who was convicted of fatally stabbing a Millington woman and her 2-year-old daughter in 1987.
There are 96 inmates on Tennessee's death row.
Justices want scrutiny
While the Supreme Court turned back the constitutional challenge to lethal injection by a vote of 7-2, justices warned states to take a careful look at their lethal injection protocols.
Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion left open the possibility of future challenges if states refuse to adopt alternative methods that significantly reduce the risk of severe pain.
Tennessee has spent the past year taking a hard look at its lethal injection methods. The governor ordered a 90-day hold on executions last year, pending a review of the state's protocols.
State Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, chairs the legislature's Death Penalty Task Force, and while he supports the death penalty, he agrees that there is room for improvement in Ten nessee. He favors a change in the drug regimen — either a single injection, like the one used in animal euthanasia, or getting rid of the paralyzing drug that can mask a botched execution — and better medical supervision at executions.
Once those safeguards are in place, Jackson said, "I think we should push forward on executions."
"Justice delayed is justice denied. There are several vicious killers (whose) day of reckoning has been postponed," he said.