A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

 April 13 at 4:29 PM
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The Tennessee Supreme Court has halted four executions originally scheduled to take place over the next year, effectively suspending capital punishment in the state for the time being.

In an order filed Friday, the court said it was nullifying the execution dates for four inmates until a trial court weighs in on the challenges each inmate has filed against the state’s lethal injection protocol. Similarly, the court had already issued orders in recent months calling off other scheduled executions to allow for lower courts to act.

These last four executions were set to take place between October of this year and March 2016. By calling off these executions, the court canceled the final executions remaining on the calendar for Tennessee, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

This makes Tennessee just the latest state to delay all of its executions or halt any capital punishment activity this year, though the precise circumstances vary from place to place. In Pennsylvania, the governor suspended the death penalty entirely in February.

Other states are halting executions while they deal with issues involving the drugs, which have become scarce in recent years. Ohio delayed all of its executions scheduled for this year while it works out a new lethal injection protocol. Georgia says it is delaying all executions while it examines lethal injection drugs that appeared “cloudy” before an execution scheduled for last month.

This drug shortage has prompted states to adopt new lethal injection protocols and turn to other methods, which is at the heart of a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear later this month. Executions in Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama are on hold until the justices considers a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol.

There are 69 people on death row in Tennessee, according to the state Department of Correction. Tennessee has not executed anyone since 2009, and over the last four decades, it has carried out six total executions, fewer than most states that still have the death penalty.

[Why the Supreme Court is considering lethal injection]

However, in recent years Tennessee has shown it wants to resume executions sooner rather than later. The state Department of Correction said in 2013 it was changing its official lethal injection method from a three-drug combination to a single drug (pentobarbital, a sedative).

That same year, Robert E. Cooper, Jr., the state’s attorney general at the time, said his office asked the state Supreme Court to set execution dates for 11 inmates on death row. One of those inmates — Olen Hutchinson — died in prison last October. Another death row inmate died the following month, and state officials said both men died of natural causes.

Last year, Tennessee became the first state to react to the ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs by formally making another method of execution its backup. Lethal injection is still the main method of execution in Tennessee, as it is in every other state with the death penalty, but the electric chair will now be used if the state can’t obtain any drugs or if lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

[Utah makes firing squads that state’s backup execution method]

Tennessee had already had the electric chair available, but it had been an option only for inmates convicted of crimes that took place before Jan. 1, 1999. The new law makes the electric chair available to newer inmates. Tennessee last executed an inmate using the electric chair in 2007.

The electric chair has been used 158 times in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, a small fraction of the more than 1,400 executions that have been carried out nationwide over that span.

RELATED: A guide to how states are allowed to execute inmates.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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