After Tennessee Governor Bill Lee rejected his request for clemency, the state executed Nick Sutton tonight via electric chair. Nick’s case is different from that of Rodney Reed (who I wrote about back in October) because he has harmed people in his youth. However, that Tennessee murdered Nick tonight despite objections from the families of his victims and the basic belief that execution is murder itself, is devastating and unjust.
Just like most people in prison for violent crimes, Nick was a survivor of violence prior to his death sentence. According to anti-death penalty advocate and spiritual guide Sister Helen Prejean, after Nick’s mother abandoned him as a baby, he was left in the care of his grandparents and abusive father who suffered from mental illnesses and substance abuse issues. Nick’s cousin described the boy’s father’s “idea of parenting generally consisted of yelling at, beating, and terrorizing his son.” The man was a “mean, physically and mentally abusive, and neglectful” father who “usually took no interest in Nick’s well-being.” His own father broke Nick’s arm when he was a boy and held him hostage at gunpoint against police forces, not to mention the severe emotional trauma, abuse, and neglect he suffered throughout his childhood. When he was just 12 years old, Nick’s dad encouraged him to start using drugs and drinking, both of which they did together until his father died when he was a teenager—leaving Nick as a young orphan.
When he was 18, Nick killed his grandmother, Dorothy Sutton, a childhood friend named John M. Large, and another man, Charles P. Almon, for which he was given three life sentences in 1979. Six years later, Nick and two other men in prison were convicted of stabbing another incarcerated man to death in what his lawyers described as a “kill or be killed situation,” and Nick was sentenced to death by a jury. However, his lawyers argued that the jury wasn’t provided with a full and accurate illustration of what Nick had suffered through during his childhood and how that abuse manifested itself in his actions later on in life. According to CBS News, a neuropsychologist discovered trauma from his father’s abuse caused severe developmental impairments in Nick’s brain, but this finding was not described to the jury. In fact, five members of the jury who sentenced Nick to die said they changed their minds following a presentation of the information about his childhood and mental challenges and they do not support his execution. And not only are the jurors unconvinced that Nick should be murdered, but also family members of the deceased victims, current and former correctional officers, and currently and formerly incarcerated people who lived with Nick.
Former correctional officer Tony Eden said that Nick saved his life during a riot in 1985 which he described in the clemency application: “A group of five inmates, armed with knives and other weapons, surrounded me and attempted to take me hostage. 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. I owe my life to Nick Sutton. If Nick Sutton was released tomorrow, I would welcome him into my home and invite him to be my neighbor.” In 1994, former prison manager Cheryl Donaldson said she slipped and fell, dropping her car keys and radio, which could have been taken. In the application she said, “Nick, however, did exactly the opposite. He sprang into action, helped me to my feet, retrieved my keys and radio, and alerted staff to come to my assistance.” The third prison official whose life was saved by Nick in 1979, the late Sheriff’s Deputy Howard Ferrell, said that Nick stopped another incarcerated man from hitting him in the back of his head.
According to CNN, Almon’s nephew Charles Maynard became heavily invested in supporting Nick through his case after his aunt told him, “you know that man is on death row and you know we don’t need to kill him.” The report says, “Maynard, a Methodist minister, kept a close eye on the case and wrote a letter to the governor asking for clemency. His daughter, Anne Lee, never knew Almon but became an advocate for Sutton after speaking to someone from the Post Conviction Defender’s Office in Knoxville. Lowell Sutton, who knew Sutton as a child and was Dorothy Sutton’s nephew, says also supports clemency. He says Nicholas Sutton was a ‘victim of circumstances” who grew up in a troubled household with an unstable father.’ Even the oldest daughter of the man Nick killed in prison wants him to live. She advocated on Nick’s behalf in his clemency application when she said, “the pain and suffering her family has endured would only be made worse” if Nick was murdered.
Many formerly incarcerated men and their families have also supported Nick throughout his clemency request process, reflecting on how he impacted their lives while they were in prison. An innocent man named Paul House was locked up with Nick on Tennessee’s death row. While in prison, Paul was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but was denied access to a wheelchair or walker, so he was forced to crawl on his hands and knees to move around the prison. When Nick learned about his diagnosis, he began carrying Paul around the facility, especially to the bathroom and shower everyday where he helped Paul clean himself. He also comforted Paul every night while the man cried himself to sleep in his cell. When Paul was exonerated in 2009, his mom said “Nick is the only reason Paul is alive today.” Nick also helped another incarcerated man on death row with a disability— Lee Hall, who went blind while in prison. When Lee was denied a walking cane or stick, Nick placed Lee’s hands on his shoulders and guided him around the prison every day. He also saved Pervis Payne’s life while they were both on death row after Pervis collapsed in his cell. After Pervis returned to prison from life-saving surgery, Nick took care of him and worked in Pervis’ place at his job so he could still keep the job and make money while in recovery.
Even with support from advocates, family members of victims, jurors, and testimonies of Nick’s compassion and growth from correctional officers and formerly incarcerated men, Tennessee electrocuted Nick to death tonight. His last words were “I have made a lot of friends along the way and a lot of people have enriched my life. They have reached out to me and pulled me up and I am grateful for that. I have had the privilege of being married to the finest woman, who is a great servant to God. Without her, I would not have made the progress that I have made. I hope I do a much better job in the next life than I did in this one. If I could leave one thing with all of you, it is, don’t ever give up on the ability of Jesus Christ to fix someone or a problem. He can fix anything. Don’t ever underestimate His ability. He has made my life meaningful and fruitful through my relationships with family and friends. So, even in my death, I am coming out a winner. God has provided it all to me.”