Joyce House won’t forget the day she discovered that her son, Paul, could no longer walk on his own. She was getting ready to leave the visitation room at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville when another man asked a guard for permission to speak to her for a moment. “Ms. House, Paul don’t want you to know it,” he said, “but he can’t walk.” Someone had been carrying Paul from his cell for their visits. The man’s name was Nicholas Sutton, but most people called him Nick. Like her son, he was on Tennessee’s death row.
House was stunned. She knew her son was sick — after being sentenced to die in 1986 for a murder he swore he didn’t commit, Paul had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which had gone untreated for years. Still, she had not realized how much the illness had already ravaged his body. She went home and confirmed what she had been told, later requesting a walker for Paul. But the warden refused, saying he might hurt somebody. Sutton continued to carry her son to his visits, but it was no longer a secret. “Nick would bring him out,” House recalled. “Carry him on his shoulders.”
Paul House was finally exonerated in 2009, although the state has never acknowledged his innocence — or compensated him for his decades on death row. Today he is 58 and lives with his mother in Crossville, Tennessee, some two hours east of Nashville. He has regained the weight that he lost in prison and gets around on a motorized scooter. But he can no longer see very well and lesions on his brain make it hard to communicate. A caretaker assists with feeding and bathing him — the same daily tasks that went neglected by the Tennessee Department of Correction for years. It was often Sutton who gave him the kind of care that the state refused to provide.
House kept in touch with Sutton after her son came home, at least for a little while. Once, she sent Sutton a photo of Paul, she recalled, “and he wrote me back and he said, ‘I want you to know I showed that picture to all those guys in here and they couldn’t believe it was him. … You’re taking good care of him.’ And I wrote him back and thanked him.”
So when House heard that officials were preparing to execute Sutton on February 20, she knew she had to do something. On February 4, House drove to Nashville for a meeting with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to help Sutton’s lawyers make the case for clemency. When she arrived, the governor was not there. They met with his aides instead. House had written an affidavit on Sutton’s behalf, parts of which are included in his clemency petition. In a call last week, House read the full affidavit over the phone.
It described how Sutton had comforted Paul when he cried at night after first arriving on death row — and then how he’d later helped him survive in other ways. When Paul first became unable to walk, crawling to the shower and sitting on the floor, “Nick refused to allow Paul to live his life like that and began carrying him to the shower every day and helping him wash.”
House wrote that she was aware of the crimes Sutton had committed, including the murder that sent him to die. But “he was very young at the time of this crime and I believe wholeheartedly that people change and grow through their experiences,” she added. “Nick proved this to me. He helped my son without hesitation when he didn’t need to, in the most intimate way. There’s no doubt in my mind that he has helped countless others. We consider Nick part of my family and my son would never have made it without him.”
If Lee refuses to intervene in Sutton’s case, it will be the fourth execution overseen by the governor since he took office in January 2019. A Christian conservative who ran as a prison reformer, Lee has repeatedly crushed the hopes of advocates who once believed he might show compassion for people facing execution in Tennessee.
Many of these activists plan to gather at Riverbend on Sunday afternoon, under the banner #March4Mercy. The recurring event, a nine-mile walk from the prison to the state Capitol, was first held on a hot August day last year, before the execution of Stephen West. On December 1, the activists marched again, before the state killed Lee Hall Jr. This time, marchers plan to carry a poster-size replica of a letter signed by 32 men on death row last summer, inviting the governor to visit the prison to pray with them. Lee has never responded.
Hall, the last man executed at Riverbend, went blind during his years on death row. Like Paul House, his burdens were alleviated by Sutton. “Lee was not provided with a cane or walking stick, so Nick routinely guided him around Unit 2,” Sutton’s clemency petition reads, referring to the area that houses death row. After Lee’s execution, “his parents sent Nick a Christmas card thanking him for all that he had done for their son.”
It is not unusual for the condemned to form bonds and support one another. Regular visitors to Tennessee’s death row often describe how important those relationships have become in their own lives as well — and how devastating each execution can be. On occasion, prison employees themselves will speak out against an execution, describing the ways in which the condemned person has changed and evolved over the years. Yet Sutton’s clemency petition is striking for the number of people, including prison officials, who describe him as Joyce House does, as a man who has gone out of his way to help others — and even save lives.
Seven current and former Tennessee Department of Correction workers have spoken out on Sutton’s behalf.
Seven current and former TDOC workers have spoken out on Sutton’s behalf. One affidavit, by retired TDOC Lt. Tony Eden, describes how a riot broke out at the prison not long after Sutton arrived on death row. “A group of five inmates, armed with knives and other weapons, surrounded me and attempted to take me hostage,” he wrote. “Nick and another inmate confronted them, physically removed me from the situation, and escorted me to the safety of the trap gate in another building.”
In another affidavit, a current TDOC employee recalls how in 1994, while working in Unit 2, she fell and hit her head on the hard prison floor, dropping her keys and radio. “Naturally, I was afraid that an inmate would take advantage of this opportunity and try to harm me or cause a security breach. Nick, however, did exactly the opposite,” she wrote. “He sprang into action, helped me to my feet, retrieved my keys and radio, and alerted staff to come to my assistance.”
Such accounts are in startling contrast to the violence that led to Sutton’s death sentence in the first place. In 1979, when he was 18 years old, he killed his paternal grandmother, retired schoolteacher Dorothy Sutton. He received a life sentence for the murder, followed by two more life sentences for a pair of killings in North Carolina. In 1985, while incarcerated at Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility in East Tennessee, Sutton fatally stabbed a man named Carl Estep. The next year, a jury sentenced Sutton to die. He was 25 years old.
If Sutton’s history of violence is shocking, the descriptions of his early life are all too familiar when it comes to the people who end up on death row. “Nicholas Sutton’s childhood was horrific,” a federal judge wrote in 2011, dissenting from a 6th Circuit ruling against Sutton. A psychologist had described his “unstable, often violent and threatening home life” — Sutton was abandoned by his mother and abused by his father, who “made Nick’s life a living hell,” according to one cousin quoted in the clemency petition. One time he beat Sutton so badly he broke his arm. Another time, the cousin said, Sutton’s father took his son hostage along with his grandmother and held them at gunpoint, “resulting in an armed standoff with police.”
Today, documenting a client’s family history is a critical part of capital defense. Attorneys hire mitigation specialists to uncover mental illness, abuse, and trauma, which can make for powerful and even life-saving evidence during the sentencing phase. But in decadesold cases like Sutton’s, defense attorneys were often ill-equipped. As the 6th Circuit judge noted in his dissent, Sutton’s lawyers did not present any evidence of his traumatic childhood. “Would this line of argument have changed the minds of all 12 jurors?” he wrote. “I cannot say for certain, but in this case Sutton only needed one: If one juror had been affected by the story of Sutton’s past, Sutton would not have been sentenced to death.”
In fact, according to the clemency petition, five of the jurors who sentenced Sutton back in 1986 now say they would like to see his sentence commuted to life. Several relatives of his victims feel the same way. The clemency petition includes a plea to the governor from the family of Dorothy Sutton: “Nick’s execution will only cause more pain and hurt for our family; please spare us that.”
As state offices closed for Presidents Day weekend, the governor had not hinted whether he would intervene in Sutton’s case. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals had denied Sutton’s latest appeal two days earlier. In the media and on Twitter, Sutton’s clemency attorney, former federal judge Kevin Sharp, emphasized that his client, who the state once counted as the worst of the worst, was a man whose life had immense value. “Time is running out, but we’re hopeful Governor Lee sees what we see in Mr. Sutton,” he wrote.
Joyce House tried to remain hopeful as well. The last time she told Paul that one of his old neighbors at Riverbend had been killed, he cried. She could not remember the man’s name, only how much it had hurt her son to hear the news. She could not bear the thought of telling him that Sutton faced execution. So she was keeping it to herself for now.
When House left for the meeting at the governor’s office, Paul asked her where she was going. “I’m going to try to see if I can help Nick,” she said. “To get him out of prison?” Paul asked. “And I said, ‘Well that would be nice, wouldn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Mom, Nick was my friend.’”