On the Saturday before Tennessee killed Stephen Michael West, the fifth man to be executed in the state’s death chamber since August 2018, some 20 people gathered in a parking lot just down the road from Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. It was not yet 7 a.m., and the air was already thick with humidity. People wore hats and comfortable shoes and passed around sunscreen.
“We’re marching to offer the governor a holy moment,” Dan Mann said after everyone had formed a circle. One of a dedicated group of religious visitors to Riverbend’s Unit 2, which houses the condemned, Mann spoke about the last time he saw Don Johnson, who was executed in May. Johnson became an ordained elder with the Seventh Day Adventist Church while on death row. As his execution date approached and his lawyers sought clemency, Johnson’s stepdaughter shared the story of how she forgave him for killing her mother. Advocates described his positive impact at Riverbend. But no one was able to convince Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to spare Johnson’s life.
Visitation to Unit 2 is held every Monday night. During the last visit before he was taken to “death watch,” Johnson had led a prayer that still moves Mann to tears. “He prayed for us, individually and collectively,” he recalled. “He prayed for the governor. And he prayed that we would find peace in the following days.” Following Johnson’s execution, 32 of the 55 men remaining on Tennessee’s death row had signed a letter to the governor, asking if he would come to Riverbend to pray with them. Lee, after all, had campaigned as a prison reformer and a devout Christian before assuming office this year. But he never responded to the letter.
With another man set to die on August 15, Mann and others formed an “ad-hoc group of friends of current and former Tennessee death row inmates” to step up the pressure on Lee to respond. They announced a march to take place August 10, starting at Riverbend and ending in front of the state Capitol downtown. A pair of banners would make the procession visible from afar. One quoted Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount — “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” — with the hashtag #March4Mercy. The other, courtesy of Ohio-based Death Penalty Action, had been held outside death chambers across the country. It read, “We remember the victims … BUT NOT WITH MORE KILLING.”
Around 7:30 a.m. Mann distributed badges bearing the names of the 32 men who signed the letter to Lee. The marchers clipped them to their clothes. The one reading “Stephen West” would be passed around throughout the march, author and activist Shane Claiborne explained, so that everyone could hold him in their thoughts. The group walked from the parking lot to Cockrill Bend Boulevard and stopped at the entrance of Riverbend. They then set off east toward downtown Nashville.
“There weren’t any executions for a while, and they really weren’t putting people on death row,” Riggs said. And now, “one by one, they’re dying.”
The route was nearly nine miles long. A blue minivan followed along, carrying a cooler full of water bottles, ready to pick up anyone who might succumb to the August heat. The group ranged from teenagers to senior citizens, walking slowly and stopping for breaks. Some drivers honked in support; one man offered a donation.
As the group arrived on the campus of Tennessee State University, Pastor Kevin Riggs of the Franklin Community Church in Williamson County, where the governor is from, talked about a cross he wears every day, made for him by a condemned man in his 70s. “It’s got a little bit of weight to it, so I can feel it,” he said. “It reminds me to pray for the prisoners.”
Riggs echoed what others have said about the current atmosphere on death row. “There’s a somberness,” he said, a feeling that “I could be next.” Until last summer, Tennessee had not carried out an execution in nearly a decade — and, as in other states, new death sentences have dropped year after year.
“Since there weren’t any executions for a while, and they really weren’t putting people on death row, you’ve got this core group of inmates who, that’s been their family for 20-plus years,” Riggs said. And now, “one by one, they’re dying.”
It’s been just over a year since the death of Billy Ray Irick marked the return of executions to Tennessee. At a time when many states are turning away from capital punishment, Tennessee’s sudden killing spree has left many people feeling shell-shocked and drained. “It’s turned into something none of us here have ever seen before,” said Jeannie Alexander, the former prison chaplain at Riverbend.
Tennessee was never considered one of the country’s leading death penalty states — certainly not compared to many of its Southern neighbors. After the state’s death penalty law was revised in the 1970s, heralding the so-called modern death penalty era, executions did not resume until 2000. Six people were put to death over nine years. Now Tennessee has carried out five executions since last summer.
Two of those men opted to die in the electric chair — and West would become the third. Their decision was rooted in well-founded fears that, although electrocution is grisly, Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol may be worse. Attorneys with the Office of the Federal Public Defender tried unsuccessfully last summer to challenge the three-drug formula using midazolam; experts warned the method would make the condemned feel like they were drowning and being burned alive. Witness accounts of the subsequent executions by lethal injection described a number of red flags. One anesthesiologist concluded that Irick had been tortured to death.
For Tennesseans paying attention, the five executions have offered a crash course, not only on execution methods, but in the profiles of those who end up on death row.
The return to the electric chair is particularly horrifying to David Raybin, a high-profile defense attorney who once worked in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office. Raybin was fresh out of law school in 1976 when he was asked to write Tennessee’s revised death penalty law, based on a model “we perceived to be state-of-the-art” at the time, as he told me last year. Decades later, after leaving the AG’s office and becoming a defense lawyer, Raybin watched a client die in the electric chair, a punishment he called “barbaric in the extreme.” Although he does not oppose the death penalty in theory, he has vocally criticized the way his law has been used in practice.
For Tennesseans paying attention, the five executions have offered a crash course, not only on execution methods, but in the profiles of those who end up on death row. Court filings and clemency petitions disclose lives marked by trauma, abuse, and especially untreated mental illness. Nashville Scene reporter Steven Hale, who has led the coverage of Tennessee’s executions — and served as a witness for three — pointed out that West, like three of the others executed since August, had a history of mental illness. In fact, he was “born in a mental health institution, the one his mother had been placed in after she attempted suicide while pregnant with him.”
The public’s knee-jerk response to such stories is often dismissive: Plenty of people experience trauma without going on to kill or victimize others. Amid fears of violent crime, abolitionists can have an especially difficult time getting their message heard. The #March4Mercy was organized just as local news stations were consumed by a prison escape on August 7 that left a veteran Tennessee Department of Correction employee dead. The escaped man had not yet been apprehended when the march was underway, and billboards showed his face over the highways. By the time he was caught on August 11, the death penalty was already on the table.
It was around 10:20 a.m. when the march reached Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church on Nashville’s historically black North Side. Riggs, the Williamson County pastor, was talking about a man on death row whose large African American family organizes reunions every summer. They share photos with him, which he then shares with visitors. “But he tells the story as if he was there,” Riggs said. “He’ll say, ‘Then we did this,’ and ‘This is what we had for supper,’ and ‘Then my aunt so-and-so, she told this funny story.’” If you ask the men at Unit 2 what most concerns them right now, Riggs said, each of them says they are worried about how this moment is affecting their families.
At the Jefferson Street church, marchers rested in the pews. Some prayed. Others just basked in the air conditioning. As the group prepared to set off again, Napoleon Harris, a pastor at a different church, changed into a T-shirt that read “Stop Executions.” Harris had called on the governor to intervene in the case of Don Johnson. But he’d also recently angrily decried Lee’s decision to continue the state’s tradition of commemorating the birthday of slave trader and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose bust still sits in the rotunda at the state Capitol.
With the past five executions all involving white men, the death penalty’s racial bias has gone relatively unmentioned in Tennessee. But this is starting to change. Among those with execution dates scheduled in 2020 is Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman, sent to death row by a prosecutor with a reputation for racism. A Metro Nashville Criminal Court judge will soon consider a claim that the prosecutor used “racist stereotyping” to strike black jurors at the trial. And a major study in the Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy recently found that black people are disproportionately represented on the state’s death row. The trend has become more pronounced as new death sentences have dwindled. Of the nine trials over a recent 10-year period that ended in a death sentence, the authors found, all but one of the defendants sent to death row were black.
It was approaching noon when the state Capitol finally came into view. Sweaty and tired but upbeat, the group carried the banners up the steep green lawn. They then turned toward Nashville’s Legislative Plaza, gathering under a row of magnolia trees. There were speakers, a song by a local musician, and an invitation for passersby to join the vigil, which would last until Monday morning. A table was set up with postcards addressed to the governor. On one side of the cards was an image of the 32 signatures from the men on death row; on the other, an area for people to write messages of their own.
Standing before the banners in a T-shirt featuring an image of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and the words “Freedom Now,” Alexander, the former Riverbend chaplain, held the mic in one hand and pointed toward the Department of Correction building with the other. “There are people who work at the Tennessee Department of Correction who are being paid to murder people that we know,” she said. “The death certificate says ‘homicide.’ So let’s call it what it is.”
On Sunday afternoon, an East Tennessee man named Adam Braseel stopped by the vigil. Recently released after almost 12 years in prison, he recalled his time at Riverbend, where the execution chamber is right next door to the visitation area. Braseel was sentenced to life in 2007 for murder he swore he did not commit. After his conviction was overturned in 2015, he spent 10 months as a free man back home, only to return to prison after the order was reversed by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Finally, Braseel was offered an Alford plea — a way to plead guilty and win his freedom while still asserting his innocence. He was released on August 2.
While Braseel never faced execution, his case was a sobering reminder of the risks of condemning the innocent to die. Two people have been exonerated from Tennessee’s death row in the past ten years. Others, like Ndume Olatushani, who spent almost 27 years in prison — 19 on death row — have settled for plea agreements to win their freedom after being wrongfully convicted. Earlier this year, the Innocence Project held a press conference in Nashville calling on the state to conduct post-conviction DNA testing in the case of Sedley Alley, executed in 2006. Alley insisted upon his innocence. “The DNA evidence should have been tested before my father was executed,” his daughter said. “It’s too late for my father, but it’s not too late to find the truth.”
The next few days played out like a film watched too many times.
One of Tennessee’s previous executions was carried out while Braseel was at Riverbend, in 2009. While he did not see the man being led to the death chamber, he had read accounts from people who watched condemned men make their final walk. “I remember vividly just trying to imagine, putting myself in their shoes,” he said. For its constant presence, Braseel said, the death chamber went mostly undiscussed at the prison.
By Monday morning, some upsetting news had reached the vigil. The Department of Correction had canceled visitation at Riverbend that night. No reason was given. For Mann, his wife Bethany, and the others who go every week, the Mondays before an execution are sacred — an opportunity to say goodbyes and honor any final requests. “It’s really important to us,” he said. “And it’s really important to the guys. They pour out of the woodwork to just have a connection.”
Shortly after 9 a.m., the group crossed the street from the plaza to the Capitol, to deliver the letters they had collected over the previous days. They went through the metal detectors and up to the governor’s office, where an aide said he would ensure that the materials would be placed on Lee’s desk. Shane Claiborne played a song on his phone he had played in the same spot before Johnson’s execution: a recording of Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman singing “Amazing Grace.”
The next few days played out like a film watched too many times. On Tuesday morning, the Department of Correction announced that West had been moved to “death watch” shortly after midnight. At 4:15 p.m. that same day, the governor released a statement saying he would not intervene. On Wednesday, the Department of Correction announced that West had selected his last meal: a Philly cheesesteak and fries.
On Thursday evening, at the usual time, a procession of cars drove back toward Riverbend, rolling west along Cockrill Bend Boulevard, the same road the marchers had traveled on foot less than a week before. The protesters parked in the designated area, showed their IDs at a checkpoint, and gathered in the field where they had stood four times in the previous year. At 7:12 p.m. — the moment at which the protocol dictated that West would have a shroud placed over his head before being electrocuted — they recited the Lord’s Prayer.
West’s time of death was 7:27 p.m. In a message later that night, Claiborne urged people to join the movement. “We cannot simply sit back and watch Gov. Lee execute, as he continues to profess his Christian faith,” he wrote. The next execution is scheduled for December 5; a second march is being planned. “We are just getting started.”