Supreme Court Dismisses Death Row Inmates' Challenge to Electrocution as Premature

July 2, 2015

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that a challenge by death row inmates to electrocution as an alternative execution method is premature and therefore unripe for resolution by the courts at this time.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court determined that the issue is not “ripe” because none of the inmates is currently subject to death by electrocution and will not ever be subject to death by electrocution unless lethal injection is declared unconstitutional or the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction certifies to the Governor that an ingredient essential to lethal injection is unavailable.  Neither of these statutory contingencies has occurred and may never occur. Ripeness in a legal sense requires that a claim not be contingent upon future events that may or may not occur.   

The case comes to the Supreme Court via an interlocutory appeal, an appeal concerning a particular issue while the case is still pending in a lower court. In 2013, the death row inmates filed a claim challenging the constitutionality of the State’s lethal injection protocol. Last year, the General Assembly passed a law establishing electrocution as an alternative form of execution if the lethal injection protocol was found unconstitutional or if the Commissioner certified that an ingredient essential to lethal injection was not available.

After the law was passed, the inmates amended their complaint to include challenges to electrocution and to the law designating it as an alternative method of execution.  The defendants filed a motion to dismiss those claims, which the trial court denied. The defendants appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Although the Court determined that the inmates’ challenges are not presently ripe, the Court declared that any future orders setting execution dates will require the State to give the inmates notice of the method of execution that will be used to carry out their scheduled executions.  The Court explained that if the State at some future time notifies the inmates that their executions will be carried out by electrocution, the inmates may then challenge electrocution and request a stay to litigate their claim.

This is the second time the Court has ruled on an issue in the inmates’ lawsuit challenging the State’s execution protocol.  In March of this year, the Court determined that the State was not required to release the names of individuals involved in the execution process. The case now returns to the trial court. A previous Supreme Court order directed the trial to begin by July 8.

Read the opinion in Stephen Michael West, et al. v. Derrick D. Schofield, et al, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark.