Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled Wednesday that the state’s revised protocol for lethal injections is constitutional.
Bonnyman’s ruling found that the protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
“The court takes no pleasure in ruling on a case in which a life and lives hang in the balance,” Bonnyman said before delivering her ruling.
She said the state’s changes to the lethal injection process, adding checks for consciousness, “seem to address” issues raised by the plaintiff, condemned prisoner Stephen Michael West.
In addition, West and his attorneys did not present a sufficient alternative “to significantly reduce the risk of severe pain,” the chancellor added.
The new checks included a prison official brushing a hand over the condemned prisoner’s eyelashes, saying his or her name and gently shaking the prisoner to check for responsiveness after the first in a three-drug lethal injection cocktail is administered and before continuing with the execution process.
The state attorney general’s office would have to file a motion for the Tennessee Supreme Court to set a new execution date for West, but state attorneys would have to review Bonnyman’s written order first, said Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
West filed a lawsuit last fall challenging the state’s three-drug lethal injection protocol, claiming the process is cruel and unusual punishment, and violates the condemned prisoner’s rights because the first drug in the mixture, sodium thiopental, does not render the prisoner fully unconscious before the last two drugs are administered, causing pain to the individual.
Last month, West’s lawyers argued the new step in the execution process meant to ensure a prisoner was unconscious wasn’t enough and prisoners would likely experience great pain equivalent to torture.
Just before Thanksgiving, Bonnyman ruled the previous method of execution — without the check for unconsciousness — was unconstitutional and likely caused still-conscious prisoners to suffocate before the other drugs in the three-step process were fully administered.
In December, the state Supreme Court stayed four upcoming executions, including West’s, in an about-face — whereas just a few days earlier, it had decided to move forward with the executions. The justices then moved to hold new hearings on the issue and remanded it back to Davidson County Chancery Court.
In 1987, West was convicted of kidnapping and fatally stabbing Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila Romines, in Union County in 1986. He was also convicted of raping the teenager.