Gov. Lee: Execution report complete, will release later

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday that the independent review into the state’s lethal injection procedure has been completed, but he refused to immediately release the findings.

Instead, Lee promised that the entire review will be released before the end of the year, while denying that he was attempting to bury any potentially negative findings over the holidays.

“I think it’s important that I get a chance to read the report and that we internalize it and absorb the information,” Lee told reporters.

Lee, a Republican, paused all executions in May after acknowledging that the state had failed to ensure its lethal injection drugs were properly tested. The oversight forced Lee to abruptly halt the execution of Oscar Smith an hour before he was to die in April. The governor’s office then refused to release records that could have illuminated his decision, citing attorney-client privilege and the disputed “deliberative process privilege.”

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

Documents obtained through a public records request later showed that at least two people knew the night before that the lethal injection drugs the state planned to use hadn’t undergone some required testing.

The records showed experts — who were not named — say testing was not performed for so-called endotoxins, which usually come from bacteria. Such testing is considered vital because it could be an indication of problems with the manufacture of the drugs.

On Friday, Lee maintained his administration was being transparent with the report even if they weren’t immediately disclosing it to the public. The governor added that he had not yet finished reading the document but confirmed that the state plans to take action.

“We want everyone to know we have it,” he said. “We want to deliver it and we’ll have it delivered before the end of the year.”

Tennessee’s independent review comes as many of the executions carried out this year were “botched” or highly problematic. The Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center has described 2022 as the “Year of the Botched Execution” as seven of the 20 execution attempts in the U.S. were visibly problematic or took an inordinate amount of time. This has led to some states, like Tennessee, to put executions on hold so processes and protocols could be reviewed.

“The release of the report will be the first step in setting the record straight,” said Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry. “We need careful and considered evaluation of this report. Personnel changes and protocol changes are sorely needed.”

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.

Officials have said midazolam renders an inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. Expert witnesses for inmates, however, say 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.

Lethal injection drugs have been a challenge to obtain for some states as many pharmacies and manufacturers refuse to supply the medications for executions. Most recently in South Carolina, officials decided to forge ahead with plans for a firing squad after it struggled to find the necessary drugs. That execution has since been delayed as well.

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