Inmate asks stay of June execution, cites pandemic

By Jonathan Mattise
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee inmate convicted in a triple slaying decades ago is seeking a stay of his June execution date, citing the new coronavirus pandemic.

The request comes as the state’s confirmed virus cases reached 154 on March 19, mostly in the middle part of the state.

Gov. Bill Lee took executive action to suspend requirements to renew driver’s licenses slated to expire over the next two months for an additional six months; free up more hospital beds; broaden the scope of practice for medical practitioners; allow more health care workers to provide telemedicine, and more. Last week, attorneys for inmate Oscar Smith wrote in a state Supreme Court filing that the court can stay the execution for six months to let the outbreak run its course and let Smith’s legal team conduct crucial work for him.

The filing says it would be irresponsible and against the public interest for attorneys to conduct the necessary interviews, travel, meet with Smith and carry out other tasks during the outbreak as they pursue clemency and court challenges.

“There is a tension between counsels’ obligation to Mr. Smith and to their own personal safety and that of their families and coworkers,” Smith’s attorneys wrote.

In his response, Attorney General Herbert Slatery argued against a stay based on claims involving ongoing litigation and clemency efforts. However, he also wrote that the court “is in the best position to determine whether a stay of execution should be granted in response to coronavirus-related issues affecting the courts of this State.”

Smith hasn’t established an entitlement to a stay based on any ongoing legal challenges and said the court has already refused to issue a certificate of commutation by setting an execution date.

The governor said it’s a decision for the state Supreme Court and didn’t weigh in further.

Smith was convicted of murder in the 1989 slayings of his estranged wife, Judy Lynn Smith, and her two sons from a previous marriage, Chad and Jason Burnett, in Nashville. He was sentenced to death for all three killings.

His execution date is set for June 4.

Three other Tennessee executions are scheduled after Smith’s date this year.

Five of the seven inmates executed since August 2018 have chosen to die in the state’s electric chair rather than by lethal injection, with several indicating they thought electrocution would be quicker and less painful. The most recent execution  was in February.

In developments, Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall is trying to limit the local jail population by expanding pre-trial release criteria — a move that is expected to double participants in a few days — and by eliminating the work release program.

In another move aimed at deterring the global pandemic’s impact in Tennessee, Hall also provided the public defender with a list of medically high-risk inmates, including pregnant women, who may qualify for release.

In Tennessee, remote testing sites, also known as drive through sites, are opening in 13 counties. That includes Shelby County, where health officials said there may be evidence of community spread of the virus. Ten cases have been reported in the county that includes Memphis.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.