A convicted murderer was put to death in Tennessee's electric chair Thursday, becoming the state's fifth prisoner over 16 months to choose electrocution over the state's preferred method of lethal injection.
Nicholas Sutton, 58, was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m. at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, the Tennessee Department of Correction said.
Sutton was sentenced to death in 1986 for killing fellow inmate Carl Estep in a conflict over a drug deal while both were incarcerated in an East Tennessee prison, where Sutton had been serving time for killing his grandmother and two others when he was 18 years old.
Sutton's supporters, including several family members of his victims and prison workers, had asked Gov. Bill Lee to commute his sentence, saying Sutton had rehabilitated himself in prison and was not the same man who first entered prison 40 years ago. Lee declined to intervene.
Anti-death penalty activist Dan Mann said he and another activist had intercepted the governor on the way to work Tuesday and prayed with him. “He asked us to pray for him because it was such a difficult decision," Mann said.
But Lee said Wednesday that he would not intervene in the execution. And two last-ditch appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court were denied Thursday evening. The justices, in an emailed statement, gave no explanation for their decision not to step in.
Sutton had not indicated why he chose electrocution — an option for inmates whose crimes were committed before the state adopted lethal injection as its preferred execution method — but other inmates have said they thought the electric chair would be quicker and less painful.
Expert witnesses testifying in 2018 on behalf of Tennessee inmates challenging the state's three-drug lethal injection protocol said the mix of drugs would cause sensations of drowning, suffocation and chemical burning while rendering them unable to move or call out.
Inmates' attorneys have argued without success that both lethal injection and electrocution violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The electric chair fell out of favor in the 1990s following several gruesomely botched executions, including a Florida execution where smoke and flames shot from the head of the condemned inmate. Only one other state, Virginia, has used electrocution in recent years, and it has not done so since 2013.
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