Report: Tenn has broken its lethal injection rules since '18

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has not complied with its own lethal injection protocol ever since it was revised in 2018, resulting in multiple executions being conducted without proper testing, according to an independent review released Wednesday.

The report was requested by Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

It comes months after Lee paused all executions in May after acknowledging that the state had failed to ensure its lethal injection drugs were properly tested. The oversight had forced Lee in April to abruptly halt the execution of Oscar Smith an hour before he was to have been executed.

Lee's administration has been reviewing the report since last week, declining to release it until the governor and his top aides had time to examine the hundreds of pages detailing the state's death row process.

Lee appointed former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to review circumstances that led to the failure and report back. Stanton was tasked with reviewing the clarity of the state’s lethal injection manual and looking at Tennessee Department of Correction staffing.

Amid the several findings inside the report, Stanton's team rebuked the top leaders at the Department of Correction for viewing the “the lethal injection process through a tunnel-vision, result-oriented lens” and claimed that the agency failed to provide staff “with the necessary guidance and counsel needed to ensure that Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol was thorough, consistent, and followed.”

Lee said Wednesday that he plans to make leadership staffing changes in the department and hire a permanent commissioner in January to replace the interim one. The new leaders, he said, will change the lethal injection protocol in coordination with the governor’s and attorney general’s offices and will review and change the department’s training.

Tennessee uses a three-drug series to put inmates to death: midazolam, a sedative to render the inmate unconscious; vecuronium bromide, to paralyze the inmate; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart.

For years, the state has maintained that midazolam renders an inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. However, the report showed that in 2017, top state correction officials were warned by a pharmacist that midazolam “`does not elicit strong analgesic effects,' meaning ‘the subjects may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs.’”

This warning aligned with what expert witnesses for inmates have stated for years, that the drugs can cause sensations of drowning, suffocation and chemical burning while leaving inmates unable to move or call out.

The assessment has led to more inmates choosing the electric chair over lethal injection, which is an option for some in Tennessee.

Jonathan Mattise And Kimberlee Kruesi, The Associated Press