Tennessee governor denies clemency to death row 'model inmate'

Tennessee governor denies clemency to death row 'model inmate'

Death row in an American prison. Credit: Jerry-Rainey/Shutterstock
Death row in an American prison. Credit: Jerry-Rainey/Shutterstock

.- The governor of Tennessee has denied a clemency request for a condemned prisoner described as a “model inmate,” clearing the way for his execution on Thursday, February 20. The decision was made despite appeals to spare his life from the family of one of his victims, and from prison officers.

Nicholas Sutton, 58, was sentenced to death in 1988 after he and another inmate murdered a fellow prisoner, Carl Estep, by stabbing him nearly 40 times on January 15, 1985. At the time of Estep’s murder, Sutton was serving a life sentence for the murder of his grandmother, Dorothy Sutton, whom he killed when he was 18. 

Gov. Bill Lee (R) denied the request for clemency on Wednesday morning. 

“After careful consideration of Nicholas Sutton’s request for clemency and a thorough review of the case, I am upholding the sentence of the State of Tennessee and will not be intervening,” said Lee. 

Sutton was also convicted of murdering two men--Charles Almon, 46 and John Large, 19--in North Carolina, also at the age of 18. In those cases, Sutton took a plea deal and received two additional life sentences. 

His attorneys argued that he underwent a change of heart since the four murders, and had “gone from a life-taker to a life-saver,” protecting the lives of prison officials during riots. 

“I owe my life to Nick Sutton,” said former prison officer Tony Eden in an affidavit for his clemency. Eden recounted a story where, during a riot at the Tennessee State Prison in 1985, five armed inmates attempted to take him hostage.

“Nick and another inmate confronted them, physically removed me from the situation and escorted me to the safety of the trap gate in another building,” said Eden. “I firmly believe that the inmates who tried to take me hostage intended to seriously harm, if not kill me.” 

Six other current and former Tennessee Department of Correction staff members have advocated that Sutton be granted clemency. Sutton’s clemency affidavit contends that, while he was in prison, he saved the lives of five people, including three prison staff members. 

The family members of some of his victims have also argued that he should not be executed. 

Former federal district court judge Kevin Sharp, who is serving as Sutton’s clemency attorney, said in a statement after the request was denied that his client “is a once-in-a-lifetime case for clemency.”

Sutton “has saved the lives of three correction officials during his incarceration; his request for clemency was supported by seven former and current Tennessee correction professionals, family members of victims, five of the original jurors and others,” said Sharp. 

Per the statement, correction officials were seeking to spare Sutton “so he could keep making the prison safer for guards and encouraging good behavior from inmates.” 

“Mr. Sutton has been a model inmate who seeks every opportunity to be of service to others,” said Sharp, explaining that Sutton cared for a disabled inmate every day who lost the ability to walk due to multiple sclerosis. 

Sutton’s execution is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursday. He has opted for the electric chair to be the method of his execution, having previously argued that the lethal injection protocol is inhumane and accounts to torture. The preferred method for execution in the state is lethal injection, but inmates who were sentenced to death prior to 1999 were given the choice between lethal injection and electrocution. 

On Wednesday, it was reported that Sutton had ordered his last meal, which he will eat prior to his execution Thursday night. Sutton ordered fried pork chops, mashed potatoes with gravy, and peach pie with vanilla ice cream. 

The catholic bishops of Tennessee have repeatedly spoken out against the death penalty in the state and called on the governor’s office to half executions.

In May, 2019, the state’s three bishops wrote to Gov. Lee asking him to respect the dignity of all human life.

“It is within your power to establish your legacy as a governor of Tennessee who does not preside over an execution on your watch,” the bishops wrote to Governor Bill Lee last year.

The letter was published May 3, and was signed by Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Bishop Mark Spalding of Nashville, and Bishop David Talley of Memphis.

The bishops said that “Even when guilt is certain, the execution is not necessary to protect society.”

“We clearly state our strong opposition to the state carrying out the death penalty,” the bishops said. “We urge you to use your authority as governor to put an end to the fast-track executions.”

Tags: Death Penalty, Tennessee

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