Convicted murderer Steve Henley met his death at the hands of the state with a smile on his face and maintained his innocence even in his final moments amid the cries and prayers of his family.
“As I have said ever since this happened, I didn’t kill them,” Henley said during his final words of his victims, Fred and Edna Stafford. “I hope they can rest easier after this procedure is done.”
Henley was pronounced dead at 1:33 a.m. today in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institute’s death chamber. Henley was put to death using Tennessee’ controversial three-drug protocol for lethal injection, an execution method Henley’s attorneys argued was unconstitutional in last minute briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court as late as yesterday evening just hours before the appointed execution date and time.
Henley was revealed to family members and media witnesses to the execution at 1:17 a.m., already strapped to the death gurney. When he heard the shouts and cries of his family, Henley lifted his head and smiled to them.
In his final words, Henley more than once maintained his innocence in the 1985 murder of the Staffords. Henley also questioned whether his death would bring any peace to the Stafford family, noting his own family’s apparent grief.
“I would like to say I hope this gives Fred and Edna’s family some peace,” Henley said. “In my experience in life, it won’t. The death of a family member never brings anything but pain.”
“I’m an innocent man,” Henley added later.
From the death gurney, Henley also gently admonished his children and sister for their tears.
“Bye,” Henley said, making kissing motions with his mouth to his family. “Stop that crying. Stop it. I’ll see you on the other side. Ya’ll are a pitiful bunch.” The final comment drew laughter not only from his family but also from Henley.
In an emotionally charged death chamber with his distraught son, daughter and sister watching, Henley’s execution began with the command of “proceed” from Warden Rickey Bell at 1:19 a.m.
“I feel it coming on,” Henley said, and then went motionless and made noises as if he were snoring.
The death chamber then exploded in a torrent of emotions from Henley’s family. Henley’s grown son, Greg Henley, wept openly. His daughter, Leanne Henley, screamed, “Oh my God, no, no,” as Henley began to slip away.
At one point, the entire Henley family along with their spiritual advisor Stacey Rector began saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison, their voices growing louder and louder in the death chamber as the familiar prayer advanced.
At about 1:26 a.m., Henley’s face began to turn blue while still strapped to the gurney. His face eventually turned purple as family members watched.
“They killed my brother for nothing!” explained an angry Stephanie Worley, Henley’s sister. Worley eventually turned her anger on members of the press sitting in the death chamber as witnesses.
“I don’t see a tear back here,” Worley said, as she turned to face reporters. “I guess human life has no meaning anymore. Like a bunch of dogs.”
It was unclear from the witness vantage point when during the almost 30 minute process Henley was given the three different drugs – one to act as an anesthetic, another to stop his breathing and a third to stop his heart.
Henley was pronounced dead 14 minutes after the execution began with the command from the warden.
“The state of Tennessee just killed an innocent man,” George Henley said in the death chamber after his father had passed. “I forgive them, but two wrongs don’t make a right. I hope they know that.”
Henley was convicted and executed for the grisly murders in Jackson County of the Staffords in 1985. The couple was shot by Henley in a dispute over money and then placed inside their house, which he then set on fire. Edna Stafford, though shot twice, was still alive and died from injuries suffered in the blaze.
Tennessee Department of Corrections staff said a nephew of the Staffords, Jack Stafford, witnessed the execution from another room.
Henley has maintained his innocence for over two decades, saying it was the man that testified against him who actually committed the murders.
Henley was the fifth person to be executed in Tennessee since 1960 and the fourth by lethal injection. Presently, Tennessee’ lethal injection protocol is the subject of a legal battle in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals where condemned inmate Edward Harbison is trying to see an opinion from district court upheld that states Tennessee’s lethal injection method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Greg Henley spoke emotionally to members of the media after the execution. He and his sister, Leanne, stood arm-in-arm, appearing to hold back sobs. Greg Henley’s voice broke as he maintained his father’s innocence.
“I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing our loving Daddy. I want them to know I’m praying for both our side of the family, and Fred and Edna Stafford’s family,” Greg Henley said. “But I also want you to know, you executed an innocent man, an innocent man.”
Rector said Henley was “at peace.” As prospects of legally staying the execution grew bleaker as the day progressed, Rector said Henley accepted the developments and was “ready,” though he maintained concerns for his family and for the Staffords’ family.
“I very much believe he ministered to me far more than I ministered to him tonight,” Rector told reporters. “I think what he hopes most is that story will be told now, even if he’s not here, because he very much feels that it should be.”
Last-minute appeals on Henley’s behalf were denied, said Henley’s attorney, Paul Davidson of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis. A request made to Gov. Phil Bredesen for a 30-day reprieve was also denied. The 30-day reprieve was requested to allow for presentation of a clemency petition.
“Unfortunately, the governor made the decision not to give him that opportunity, and that ended [Hensley’s] appeals tonight,” Davidson said.
Near the prison, more than 60 demonstrators gathered to show their opposition to the death penalty, a turnout that surprised Tennessee Coalition Against State Killings (TCASK) field organizer Isaac Kimes. Temperatures in Nashville hovered around 15 degrees early Wednesday morning, and a light snow fell during parts of the evening. Due to the weather and to the midnight start of the demonstration, Kimes said he was very pleased with the number of people participating.
Volunteers at the event said they wouldn’t be anywhere else. Some held signs, or Bibles. While TCASK is a secular organization, Kimes said the anti-death penalty movement draws a number of volunteers who oppose execution on religious grounds.
“I believe that my faith calls me to be here, and to speak out against something I don’t believe in. I believe that God is love, and God is forgiveness as well,” said demonstrator Menzo Faassen.
“From a religious standpoint, I don’t think that anyone has the right to take another person’s life, in any form or fashion. The fact that the state of Tennessee, of which I’m a citizen, is pre-meditatively taking another person’s life is just incomprehensible to me. I need to be out here to stand against that,” said TCASK volunteer Harry Simpson. “Tennesseans are better than this. … I don’t know why more people aren’t out here.”
For those at the vigil, the presence of Michael McCormick – a Tennessee man who spent 17 years on death row before being acquitted and released in 2007 – served as testimony to a legal system that sometimes makes mistakes.
“I’m here to support Steve. I’m here to support all of [those on death row]. I knew them for 20 years,” McCormick said. “The system can fail. People can be executed for crimes they didn’t commit. People need to keep that in mind.”