Tennessee set to execute man whose lethal injection was delayed 2 years by COVID-19

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Tennessee to execute man whose execution by lethal injection was delayed 2 years for COVID-19

Oscar Smith was sentenced to death for the 1989 murders of his estranged wife and her two sons with her ex-boyfriend. File photo courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Corrections

Tennessee is scheduled to execute a man on death row Wednesday for the 1989 murders of his estranged wife and their two sons after the governor denied him clemency.

Oscar Smith, 72, will be executed by lethal injection at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, the first person to be put to death in the state since before the early 2020 pandemic. He was sentenced to death for the deaths of his estranged wife, Judy Robard Smith, and her two sons, Chad Burnett and Jason Burnett.

Smith was scheduled to be executed in June 2020, but the Tennessee Supreme Court delayed the execution, citing staff safety and the ability of Smith’s legal team to carry out its work in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee denied Smith clemency in a blunt, one-sentence statement Tuesday that offered little explanation.

“After full consideration of Oscar Smith’s request for clemency and an extensive review of the case, Tennessee’s sentence will stand and I will not intervene,” he said.

Smith’s legal team sought to reopen their client’s case in the weeks leading up to his execution date in response to what they said was new evidence that might cast doubt on his guilt.

In a court filing, Smith’s attorneys said new touch DNA evidence found on the murder weapon warranted reconsideration of the case. The court documents state that the DNA does not belong to Smith, suggesting another unknown killer.

At Smith’s initial trial, expert testimony indicated “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the palm print found on the cone belonged to Smith. Defense attorneys said the fact that the DNA evidence pointed to another person punctured the prosecutor’s “most important evidence.”

“The DNA evidence suggests that an unknown assailant – not Mr. Smith – murdered Mr. Smith’s family using the bloody murder weapon found at the crime scene,” Smith’s attorney, Amy D. Harwell, said at the time.” New technology has made it possible to identify the DNA of this unknown person, and Mr. Smith has steadfastly maintained his innocence since his arrest in 1989 – until now, it has not been possible to scientifically prove that he was not the killer.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court denied a request to reopen the case.

In a separate court filing in March, Smith challenged the state’s use of three drug protocols in lethal injection. According to the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, Tennessee’s protocol includes midazolam (a sedative), vecuronium bromide (a paralyzing agent) and potassium chloride (which causes death).

Critics of the death penalty argue that midazolam, which is supposed to make executions painless, does not actually numb the pain. They say the drug, used in combination with a paralyzing agent, makes it impossible for inmates to express pain.

Smith argued in a March filing that the state’s protocol violates the state and federal constitutions. He asked for a firing squad to carry out executions instead.

Smith’s execution is one of two scheduled for Thursday in the United States. Texas will also execute Carl Buntion, who killed a police officer in 1990.

If both sentences are carried out, the two men will be the fourth and fifth people executed in the United States this year.

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