Lawyers for condemned double-killer Stephen Michael West asked the state Supreme Court to stop his scheduled execution by lethal injection Tuesday, arguing prison officials have failed to ensure he won’t suffer horrific pain as he suffocates.
West claims the state’s lethal injection procedure violates the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because the initial drug — a sedative — fails to render the inmate unconscious before paralytic and then heart-stopping chemicals are injected into his veins.
In addition, West’s lawyers on Monday applied for a stay of execution with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last week, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman sided with West, ruling Tennessee's process "allows for death by suffocation while conscious." Prison officials quickly changed their execution protocol, requiring the warden to make sure the inmate is unconscious after the sedative is administered. Under the new procedure, the warden will brush a hand over an inmate's eyelashes and gently shake the inmate or call out his name to check for consciousness.
The state Supreme Court said it was satisfied and ruled the execution could go on as scheduled. But in a new motion, West’s lawyers contend the check for consciousness is inadequate.
“The evidence … proves that brushing the inmate's eyelashes, calling his name, and even gently shaking him will not measure whether the inmate will be unconscious of the pain produced by the three-drug protocol,” the motion states. “The evidence proves that a person can be unconscious of verbal stimuli or slight physical stimuli and yet be responsive to stronger stimuli. The evidence proves that the pain produced by the protocol requires a depth of unconsciousness not seen in Tennessee's executed inmates.”
West was convicted in the 1986 stabbing deaths of Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila Romines, in Union County. He was moved to death watch Sunday at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
In the 10 years since Tennessee resumed executions, six people have been executed. Another Tennessee inmate, Billy Ray Irick, is scheduled to die on Dec. 7.