Execution temporarily delayed for local man

Deborah Denno in OakRidger.com, November 08, 2010

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Supreme Court granted a temporary stay for Stephen Michael West, a former Lake City resident, on Saturday, granting the death row inmate a postponement through Nov. 30.

The 48-year-old was scheduled to be executed Tuesday evening in Nashville for the 1986 stabbing deaths of Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter Sheila Romines in Union County.

West's federal public defender, Stephen Ferrell, said Saturday he was glad that they were given the three-week stay to address their claims against Tennessee's lethal injection procedure.

It's the second time judges have stepped in to halt the execution of West, who was hours away from death in 2001 when a judge granted him a stay so he could pursue federal appeals.

The court made the decision so that the Davidson County Chancery Court can hear evidence in a lawsuit West's attorneys filed alleging that prisoners executed by lethal injection experience unconstitutionally severe pain. The lawsuit claims the first drug in Tennessee's three-drug lethal injection protocol does not adequately anesthetize prisoners, violating the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

Ferrell said he expects there will be a hearing in the coming weeks to present evidence.

"Our goal is to show the current practice (of lethal injection) is unconstitutional," he said.

West had completed the standard federal appeals process and his request for a stay was dismissed by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen declined to intervene when West's attorneys asked for clemency, spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said.

West's latest appeal claimed that autopsy results from a previous execution in Tennessee indicate that the inmate may not have been unconscious when he died.

The autopsy of Steve Henley, who was executed in 2009, indicated that the level of sodium thiopental in his body after the execution was inadequate to cause unconsciousness. Thiopental is a barbiturate that is supposed to render the condemned inmate unconscious.

After the first injection, inmates are given two other drugs: pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes muscles, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

The appeal also said that witnesses during the execution saw Henley's face turn blue and purple and said the autopsy suggests he died from suffocation while he was not properly anesthetized.

No state official has ever claimed that there were any problems with Henley's execution and the catheters used during the execution were properly placed, according to the autopsy.

Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, said a similar argument was made in California using autopsy results of death penalty inmates who had been executed.

"This has been ongoing matter on the level of thiopental that inmates are getting," she said.

Denno said there could be a number of explanations for why thiopental levels in an autopsy would be low. She said certain physiological characteristics of the inmates, such as whether they were heavy drug users, could change the effects of thiopental. Also if the injection is not done properly the drugs wouldn't go into the vein, but into the surrounding tissue, she said.

In an opinion issued by the appeals court on Thursday, Judge Danny Boggs wrote that West's arguments against the lethal injection procedure in Tennessee were made too late. But the Tennessee Supreme Court justices decided to err on the side of caution, noting in their order: "Decisions involving such profoundly important and sensitive issues ... are best decided on evidence that has been presented, tested, and weighed in an adversarial hearing."

Sodium thiopental has been in short supply and has caused the delay of some executions around the country.

Tennessee officials say they have enough of the drug to execute West and expect to carry out another lethal injection in December. However, a London-based group opposed to the death penalty filed suit this week to try to prevent a British company from exporting the drug that could be used in the execution of a third Tennessee inmate scheduled for early 2011.

Edmund Zagorski, who has been convicted of committing two murders in 1983, is scheduled for execution on Jan. 11. Corrections spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said the issue should have no effect on West's scheduled execution.

Carter said she cannot say where Tennessee obtained the drug for West's execution.

West's attorneys also say he should not be executed because he is mentally ill. His attorneys have said he has been diagnosed with psychotic features, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder and was severely abused as a child.

West and another man, Ronald Martin, were accused in the murders of the Romineses. According to court records, Martin and West got off work at a McDonald's fast food restaurant in Lake City and went to the Romines home in Union County in the early morning hours of March 17, 1986. Martin, who was 17, reportedly knew the teenage girl and the two men were allowed in the home.

Sometime between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., the daughter and mother were stabbed to death. The teenager was raped before she was killed and stabbed 17 times in the abdomen. Fourteen of the wounds were described as "torture type cuts," according to the Tennessee Supreme Court's ruling upholding the conviction and death sentence.

Wanda Romines suffered "a number of deep stab wounds," one of which severed an artery and caused her to bleed to death within a few minutes.

West testified that Martin had threatened him with a gun at the crime scene and Martin also threatened to kill West's pregnant wife and unborn child if West fled the scene or approached the police.

West's attorneys also claimed that after the two were arrested, Martin told a cellmate that he was the one who had killed the mother and daughter, not West. But a recording of that alleged confession was not allowed to be used as evidence in the trial.

Martin was a juvenile at the time of his arrest and therefore not eligible for the death penalty. Martin pleaded guilty and was given two life sentences, which he is currently serving.

In February 2001, West came within 10 hours of being electrocuted. West, who previously had refused to speak to attorneys working to save his life, was granted a stay by a federal judge when he decided to pursue federal appeals.

But this time around West has completed the standard federal appeals process and his request for a stay was dismissed by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen declined to intervene when West's attorneys asked for clemency, spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said.