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“Abdication of Responsibility”: Heads Roll in Tennessee DOC Over Botched Execution Protocols

by Kevin W. Bliss

A day before releasing a scathing report on the state’s execution procedures, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) fired the deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections (DOC), Debbi Inglis, along with Inspector General Kelly Young. The last day of work for both was December 27, 2022.

Lee halted executions in May 2022, just before Interim DOC Commissioner Lisa Helton admitted in an explosive court filing that the state hadn’t followed its own protocol for testing execution drugs. Lee then tapped former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to investigate.  [See PLN Nov. 2022, p.44.]

Stanton’s report, which the governor released on December 28, 2022, blasted DOC for not following its own lethal injection protocol. The compounding pharmacy tasked with mixing the drugs didn’t even have a copy. And the only DOC employee who received whatever testing reports were provided lacked the training to understand what they meant – a misalignment of duties and authority the report called an “abdication of responsibility” by DOC.

“The fact of the matter is not one [DOC] employee made it their duty to understand the current Protocol’s testing requirements and ensure compliance,” the report stated.

Tennessee utilizes a three-drug combination for lethal injections: midazolam to induce unconsciousness, vecuronium bromide to instill paralysis, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Regulations required drug testing prior to each execution, even if the execution was by electrocution and the drugs were just on-hand in case a condemned prisoner changed his mind.

But Stanton found DOC had followed testing procedures for endotoxins only once since the 2018 updated protocols, and then in a test run, not an actual execution. Moreover, testing for endotoxins is only one of three testing required procedures. The report concluded that DOC leadership “viewed the lethal injection process through a tunnel-vision, result-oriented lens rather than provide the necessary guidance and counsel to ensure that Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol was thorough, consistent, and followed.” See: Tennessee Lethal Injection Protocol Investigation Report and Findings, Butler-Snow LLP (2022).

After Young and Inglis were asked to surrender their government IDs, they were placed on paid leave until their termination January 10, 2023. To replace Inglis as deputy commissioner, Lee then appointed Frank Strada, a veteran of the Arizona DOC, which has suffered its own problems with executions. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.40.]

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that firing a prison system official for violations of execution protocols was extremely rare; usually they are allowed to retire early instead.

Additional sources: AP News, WTVF, WZTV