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From Super Villain to Super Man, Tennessee Prisoner Still Executed

When 18, Sutton killed two men in North Carolina and his father’s mother. The year was 1980 when prisons across the country were even more horribly overcrowded than they are now. When severe overcrowding in prisons occurs, violence and survival of the fittest amongst the prison population becomes paramount. At one point, a prisoner struck Sutton on the head so hard that one of his eyes popped out of its socket.

In 1985, prison predator Carl Estep announced his plans to murder Sutton. The situation ballooned into what former warden and corrections commissioner James E. Aiken characterized as a “kill or be killed” situation. Sutton survived — Estep did not. Since Sutton’s co-combatant refused a plea offer for a 30- to 40-year long prison sentence, the state took them both to trial. Sutton was convicted of capital murder and was sentenced to die.

Somewhere along Sutton’s arduous life journey he underwent a deep, profound and fundamental change. In 1985, a major riot occurred at the prison he was housed in.

As five weapon-wielding prisoners surrounded Lieutenant Tony Eden with murderous intent, Sutton and another prisoner rescued Eden. They delivered him safely to another building, thus saving his life. In 1994, he saw death row manager Cheryl Donaldson fall, striking her head on the floor and causing her to lose keys and radio. Sutton helped her up, notified officials she needed help and shielded her from harm by other prisoners until help arrived. As a harbinger of his later self, in 1979 Sutton saved a jailer from being struck from behind by another prisoner armed with a broom handle. Deputy Howard Ferrell credited Sutton with saving his life.

Sutton’s acts of mercy and kindness toward jailers and prison guards were not a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome. He was an angel of mercy toward his fellow prisoners as well.

Death row prisoner Paul House contracted multiple sclerosis and lost his ability to walk. House was denied a wheelchair by the prison authorities so Sutton voluntarily carried him around the prison. This included daily showers, where Sutton helped him to wash, and carrying him to meals and to visits with his mother. House was exonerated and released from prison in 2009. House’s mother stated in Sutton’s clemency petition that “Nick is the only reason Paul is alive today.”

Sutton later saved prisoner Pervis Payne’s life when he collapsed in his cell, nearly dying from a perforated intestine. After Payne returned to the Row from a month-long hospital stay, Sutton nursed him while also performing Payne’s assigned prison job until Payne could safely perform it. This allowed Payne to continue to draw his meager wages during his recovery.

Prisoner Lee Hall went blind while on death row. Sutton led Hall around the unit and protected him from prison predators just as he had done for House and Payne. Tennessee relieved Sutton of Hall’s burden by executing Hall in December 2019.

After years of saving lives, protecting others and making prison a safer place for all, Sutton’s execution date was set.

A clemency petition to Tennessee Governor William Bryan Lee seeking to save Sutton’s life was prepared and submitted by Nashville attorneys Kevin H. Sharp and Deborah Y. Drew.

Lee denied Sutton mercy. On February 20, 2020, the state of Tennessee electrocuted Nicholas Sutton to death. Rest in peace, Nick.