Tennessee Supreme Court Stays Execution of Death Row Inmate Due to COVID-19 Pandemic

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ordered a death row inmate's execution to be stayed until 2021 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Oscar Franklin Smith, 70, was scheduled to be executed on June 4 for the 1989 slayings of his estranged wife Judy Lynn Smith and her two sons, Chad and Jason Burnett.

Last month, Smith's attorneys filed a motion seeking to delay Smith's execution by six months, saying the severe disruptions to daily life during the COVID-19 outbreak had hindered their ability to prepare a clemency case for Smith, who has always maintained his innocence.

Oscar Smith
The Tennessee Supreme Court has ordered that Oscar Smith's execution date be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tennessee Department of Corrections

On Friday, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted the motion and ordered a stay of execution until February 4, 2021.

Smith's attorney Kelley Henry, supervisory assistant federal public defender in Nashville, said the court's ruling was "absolutely right" as it would have put people's health at risk and harmed Smith's clemency case otherwise. "The court was absolutely right to stay Oscar Smith's execution because of the COVID-19 virus," Henry said in a statement to Newsweek.

"It makes no sense to bring execution witnesses and other people into the prison and possibly expose them to COVID-19 infection or introduce the virus into the prison population."

She added: "Mr. Smith, who has always maintained his innocence, needs to meet with his attorneys to prepare a clemency petition and investigators need to interview people to get information for the clemency petition. None of that face-to-face work can happen at this time without risking public health."

She also noted that numerous executions in Texas had been stayed due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. "Texas also followed this common sense position and put five executions on hold because of the crisis. We must all come together to put safety first," Henry added.

Henry had argued in an update to the filing that her team had lost "critical time" due to the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

She said a delay would "benefit the prison" as an execution taking place during a pandemic "presents needless additional risk" to the staff and inmates at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, where Smith is housed.

"A stay of Mr. Smith's execution will benefit the prison at this time," Henry wrote in the motion. Additionally, she said the "execution protocol does not address the carrying out of executions in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prison staff will require additional training in providing safeguards to protect witnesses to the execution, the media, lawyers for the state and defense, and others who will attend the execution."

Tennessee had 6,059 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and 142 deaths as of 3 p.m. CDT Friday, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Moree than 3,000 people have recovered in the state.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee's office has been contacted for comment.

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