Tennessee governor 'not compelled' to witness execution

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee says he has no plans to witness an execution as Tennessee continues to put people to death.

Lee, a Republican, was offered a witness seat after he declined to stop the past two executions since taking over Tennessee's top political office in January. Three more executions are scheduled to take place through early 2020.

"I've certainly thought about if I would, but I have not felt compelled to do it," Lee told reporters this week.

While governors have a key role in deciding whether to intervene in a death penalty case, it is rare for one to witness an execution. Instead, executions are viewed by top prison officials, family members of the victims and inmate, attorneys and reporters.

Executions are not broadcast to the public, making the role of witnesses important to the process.

At the latest execution of Tennessee inmate Stephen West on Aug. 15, one media witness at a press conference said in response to a follow-up question that he was going to take a break after watching three executions in one year.

"I think maybe the governor or someone can take my seat if they want," said Steven Hale, a reporter with the Nashville Scene, an alternative weekly publication. "I think I'm done for now."

West was executed by the electric chair, one of three inmates within the last year to choose that method of dying. Tennessee is the only state in the nation to execute inmates with the electric chair since 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The increase in executions runs counter to the national trend. Nationwide they were at historic lows in 2018.

Advocates have previously appealed to Lee's Christian faith, which he has mentioned frequently both during his gubernatorial campaign and in his time as governor. Lee has declined to intervene, expounding on the difficult nature of the decisions while maintaining that the death penalty is appropriate in extremely egregious cases.

While talking to reporters at the Tennessee Capitol last week, Lee said reviewing death penalty clemency requests has not been easy.

"As I've said before, it's one of the most difficult decisions that a governor has to make and I wrestle with each one of them exhaustively," Lee said.

Five inmates have been executed in Tennessee since August 2018 — making Tennessee one of three states that resumed executions that year after long breaks. Two of those inmates died by the state's preferred method, lethal injection, and three chose the electric chair, arguing it would be a quicker and less painful way to die than the three-drug method. Three more executions are scheduled to take place through early 2020.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, the number of executions peaked in 1999 with 98. They were at their lowest in 2016 with 20, according to center statistics. Americans' support for the death penalty similarly peaked in the 1990s and has declined since, according to public opinion polls by Gallup.

A 2018 Gallup poll showed 56 percent of Americans supported the death penalty for a person convicted of murder.

"Our justice system has put in place a process and the people have agreed with that process," Lee said in answering a question about the difficulty of the decisions he must make.

"In the state of Tennessee, the judicial branch has established that and it is as it should be if that's the way the people want it to be," Lee continued. "I'm compelled to follow the process. And I think the processes have gone on as designed without a flaw, and for that I'm grateful."