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Court rejects bid to block Tennessee execution, but inmate gets reprieve when state discovers last-minute “oversight”

The Supreme Court on Thursday declined to block the execution of Tennessee inmate Oscar Smith, who had been scheduled to die at 8 p.m. EDT. However, shortly after the justices turned down Smith’s appeal, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called off the execution, citing an “oversight” in the preparations for the lethal injection.

Smith was convicted for the 1989 shooting death of his estranged wife, Judy, and for shooting and stabbing to death her two teenaged sons, Chad and Jason Burnett. Smith had asked the justices to put his execution on hold and allow him to present new DNA evidence that he says proves his innocence.

Smith contended that new technology has revealed the DNA of an unidentified person on the handle of an awl – a small, pointed tool used for piercing holes – found at the crime scene. He told the justices that he could not have raised this issue in an earlier petition for post-conviction relief because the technology to isolate the DNA was not available at the time. Allowing his execution to go forward without giving him a hearing to fully develop his claim of innocence would violate the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and its ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Smith’s attorneys wrote.

Emphasizing that “Smith’s case has been thoroughly litigated over a span of three decades,” Tennessee urged the justices to allow Smith’s execution to go forward. The DNA evidence that Smith now offers, the state wrote, shows only what Smith has long argued – that someone else had touched the awl, and that his fingerprints were not on it. Moreover, the state stressed, the awl was not, as Smith suggested, the murder weapon. (A knife and a gun were used in the killings but were never found.) And, the state argued, a wealth of other evidence establishes Smith’s guilt.

In a brief, unsigned order issued shortly before 6 p.m. EDT, the court turned down Smith’s request without explanation. There were no recorded dissents from the ruling.

It was the second emergency appeal on Thursday in which the justices declined to block an execution. Shortly before ruling in Smith’s case, the court allowed the execution of Carl Buntion to go forward in Texas.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Court rejects bid to block Tennessee execution, but inmate gets reprieve when state discovers last-minute “oversight”, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 21, 2022, 8:34 PM),