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Death row inmate executed in electric chair

People gather for a candlelight vigil for death row inmate Stephen Michael West Photo: Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP

Tennessee has executed its third inmate in the electric chair since November, killing a man who maintained that he did not stab a mother and her 15-year-old daughter to death in 1986.

State officials pronounced 56-year-old Stephen West dead on Thursday evening at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

For his final words, West said: “In the beginning, God created man.” He then started to cry and added: “And Jesus wept. That is all.”

West decided this week that he preferred to die in the electric chair after previously voicing no preference, which would have defaulted him to lethal injection.

His lawyer in a court filing wrote that the electric chair is “also unconstitutional, yet still less painful” compared with the state’s preference of a three-drug lethal injection.

Ralph Hutchison lights candles at a vigil in Tennessee for death row inmate Stephen Michael West Credit: Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP

Lawyers for inmates David Miller and Edmund Zagorski made the same arguments before they chose to die by the electric chair in 2018.

Both unsuccessfully argued to courts that Tennessee’s procedure, which uses the drug midazolam, results in a prolonged and torturous death.

Tennessee has put two inmates to death by lethal injection since August 2018.

Condemned inmates in the state whose crimes occurred before 1999 can opt for the electric chair.

West’s lawyer argued that some “feasible and readily implemented alternative methods of execution exist that significantly reduce the substantial risk of severe pain and suffering” compared with the state’s three-drug protocol or electrocution: a single bullet to the back of the head, a firing squad, a “euthanasia oral cocktail” or one-drug pentobarbital, according to a February court filing.

West was one of four death row inmates who sued last year, asking a federal court’s permission to use a firing squad as an execution method.

Currently, just three states — Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah — continue to allow the use of firing squads. However, the last time that method was used was in 2010.

The last state other than Tennessee to carry out an execution by electrocution was Virginia in 2013, according to Death Penalty Information Centre data.

West was found guilty of the kidnapping and stabbing deaths of 51-year-old Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter Sheila Romines. He also was convicted of the teenager’s rape.

West maintained that he did not stab a mother and her 15-year-old daughter to death in 1986 Credit: Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP

In a clemency plea to Governor Bill Lee, lawyers for West wrote that his then-17-year-old accomplice Ronnie Martin actually killed both victims.

West was 23 at the time.

Their cases were separated, and while West was sentenced to death, Martin pleaded guilty as a juvenile and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 2030.

In a court filing, the state said West brutally stabbed the victims to death. An expert at West’s trial concluded two people were involved in stabbing the teen.

Regardless of the arguments about who killed the women, Tennessee is one of 27 states that allow executions of “non-triggermen” convicted of involvement in a crime resulting in a victim’s death, even if they did not kill anyone themselves, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

West’s clemency filing says the jury never heard a jail recording from Martin saying he carried out the killings, not West.

But a 1989 state Supreme Court opinion rejected the recording as uncorroborated hearsay that would not have exonerated West.