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No autopsies performed on Tennessee's electrocutions

Associated Press • Updated Feb 13, 2020 at 2:41 PM

NASHVILLE — Tennessee has not performed autopsies on the four death row inmates who chose to die in the electric chair since the state resumed executions in 2018.

The state honored requests that autopsies not be performed from all those inmates.

Documents provided to The Associated Press show that just one autopsy was performed on an inmate in the last 18 months, even though six inmates have been executed. That autopsy was performed on an inmate executed by lethal injection.

Those who asked not to have autopsies included Lee Hall, who was electrocuted Dec. 5. Two white plumes of what looked like smoke rose from Hall’s head as he died for the 1991 murder of his former girlfriend. State officials have maintained it was steam.

Davidson County Chief Medical Examiner Feng Li says autopsies are typically routine after an execution because they are classified as homicides.

There are exceptions, Li said, including for inmates who said they did not want an autopsy performed.

“If they are strongly opposed, we’ll do an external exam and toxicology,” Li said.

That means the last autopsy of an electrocuted inmate in Tennessee was performed in 2007, when Daryl Holton was executed for the 1997 murders of four children.

Autopsies are considered vital in determining the cause and manner of death.

When the electric chair is used, autopsies can help determine how quickly an inmate died when given jolts of electricity and help determine if the chair worked properly. Questions have surrounded the effectiveness of Tennessee’s electric chair, which was built by a self-taught architect who has warned the chair could fail due to recent changes the state has made to it over the years.

When lethal injection is the execution method, autopsies can provide insight in determining if the anesthetic worked. They can be valuable in piercing through the public myth that witnesses are watching someone “fall asleep” during the execution, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“From the public interest perspective, when a prisoner declines an autopsy or refuses an autopsy, it means there is valuable information we’re not going to get but that’s private information that we as a society say should remain in the control of the individual,” said Dunham.

In Hall’s case in Tennessee, an investigation report shows the state instead performed a body examination and toxicology report - which found caffeine and anti-anxiety medication in his system. But officials took no further steps to account for the smoke or steam.

Hall was electrocuted Dec. 5 after being convicted for the 1991 killing of his estranged girlfriend Traci Crozier. He selected the electric chair over lethal injection — an option allowed inmates in the state who were sentenced to death for crimes committed before January 1999.

During the execution, two small plumes of white smoke appeared above Hall’s head after he received two jolts of electricity while strapped to the chair. This caused some advocates to call for more scrutiny surrounding the chair.

Correction officials have repeatedly said it was not smoke but steam that rose from Hall’s head. Republican Gov. Bill Lee later said he trusted the “process was done well,” and did not see any lingering issues surrounding the execution.

Tennessee has faced multiple legal challenges to conducting autopsies on inmates.

In 2009, 53-year-old Cecil Johnson requested ahead of his execution that the state not perform an autopsy after citing objections due to religious reasons.

The request kicked off a tense legal fight between the state, which argued an autopsy was needed to ensure the lethal injection had been administered properly, and Johnson’s family, who argued that his religious convictions should be respected.

Ultimately, the federal court sided with Johnson’s family. The judge found that the state “failed to prove that an autopsy on Mr. Johnson was essential to further the government’s compelling interest.”

It would be nearly a decade before Tennessee carried out another execution after Johnson, where the legal fight over performing autopsies once again surfaced.

In 2018, a Nashville judge blocked an autopsy after Billy Ray Irick also cited his religious beliefs as a reason not to have an autopsy. Irick was executed via lethal injection.

Shortly after, Edmund Zagorski chose the electric chair over lethal injection for his 2018 execution method and an autopsy was not conducted.

As was the case with Irick and Johnson, Zagorski’s legal team alerted Davidson County ahead of time that he didn’t want an autopsy performed, Li said.

Since then, documents show that only Don Johnson — who was executed last May by lethal injection for his conviction in the 1984 suffocation death of his wife, Connie Johnson — underwent an autopsy.

Nicholas Sutton, a death row inmate scheduled to be electrocuted Feb. 20, had not contacted Davidson County about an autopsy as of Tuesday, Li said.

Tennessee is one of six states in which inmates can choose the electric chair, but it’s the only state that has used the chair in recent years.