Tennessee inmate's execution paused again due to COVID-19

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court on Tuesday hit pause again on a death row inmate's scheduled execution because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an order, the justices wrote that Oscar Smith’s execution, which was slated to happen Feb. 4, will be stayed pending the court's further order "because of the multiple issues caused by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic."

Smith, 70, initially had been scheduled to die last June for the 1989 slayings of his estranged wife, Judy Lynn Smith, and her two sons from a previous marriage, Chad and Jason Burnett, in Nashville. The Supreme Court had ordered a delay until February because of the new coronavirus.

Smith's lead attorney, Amy Harwell, requested the additional reprieve last month after contracting COVID-19 during a trip to see a federal prisoner she is representing in Texas. Attorneys for Smith have also noted that Tennessee in recent weeks has seen one of the biggest per capita surges in new reported cases in the country.

Last month, the court likewise indefinitely postponed the execution of death row inmate Byron Black, who had first been scheduled to die last October, then was rescheduled to be executed in April.

Kelley Henry, Black's lead attorney, traveled with Harwell to see the federal prisoner in Texas and also contracted COVID-19.

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery had opposed the request to delay Black's execution as premature. Slatery's office did not file anything in response to Smith's more recent request to pause his execution.

Tennessee executed Nicholas Sutton in the electric chair last February, extending into 2020 what had been a quick pace of executions. Then COVID-19 hit, delaying every scheduled execution in the state since.

In November, Republican Gov. Bill Lee granted a reprieve from execution to Pervis Payne from Dec. 3 until April 9 “due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Lee granted another reprieve in July to Harold Nichols.