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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he will not grant clemency to a death row inmate whose group of supporters includes family members of his victims and past and present prison workers.
Nicholas Sutton, 58, was sentenced to death in 1986 for killing fellow inmate Carl Estep in a conflict over a drug deal while both were incarcerated in an East Tennessee prison.
“After careful consideration of Nicholas Sutton’s request for clemency and a thorough review of the case, I am upholding the sentence of the State of Tennessee and will not be intervening,” Lee said in a brief statement released Wednesday.
Estep’s oldest daughter said Sutton did her family a favor when he killed her father.
“To say that was the best day of my life is an understatement,” Rosemary Hall said of her father’s death in a statement included in Sutton’s clemency petition. “I felt as though a 100-pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I thought to myself, ‘There is a God!'"
She called Estep an “evil man” and accused him of setting their house on fire and deliberately causing a traffic accident that killed her baby sister. Estep was in prison for raping Hall’s stepsister when Sutton killed him, she said.
Although Sutton drew the death penalty for Estep’s murder, he was already serving time for three murders he committed in 1979 when he was just 18, including that of his grandmother. In the clemency petition, longtime friends describe a childhood marked by abandonment, abuse and neglect, and later a spiral into drug abuse.
But a recurring theme in the statements supporting the clemency petition is that Sutton today is not the same man who went prison at 18.
“I can confidently state that Nick Sutton is the most rehabilitated prisoner that I met working in maximum security prisons over the course of 30 years,” former Correction Lt. Tony Eden stated in an affidavit included with the clemency petition.
Eden believes Sutton may have saved his life during a prison riot in 1985 by confronting a group of armed inmates who were trying to take Eden hostage.
“If Nick Sutton was released tomorrow, I would welcome him into my home and invite him to be my neighbor,” Eden wrote.
Former counselor Cheryl Donaldson also believes Sutton may have saved her life when he sprang into action and called for help after she slipped and hit her head hard on a concrete prison floor.
Donaldson also described how her own brother's killing prompted a very frank conversation with Sutton.
“Nick told me he deeply regretted his crimes, constantly reflected on his wrongs, his victims and their families, and is haunted by the lives he has taken," Donaldson stated.
The mother of Paul House, a former death row inmate who was later freed when a judge overturned his conviction based on new evidence, said last week that she was doing all she could to advocate for Sutton. She said Sutton cared for her son after he developed multiple sclerosis in prison, including helping him eat and shower.
“I’m telling you right now, my son would be dead if it wasn’t for Nick,” Joyce House said in a telephone interview.
Relatives of another of Sutton's victims, Charles Almon, were also among those who requested clemency. Almon's nephew and namesake, Charles Maynard, said his close-knit family never got over his uncle's death, but the past few months have been especially painful as Sutton's execution date approaches.
Maynard said he doesn't feel executing Sutton will solve anything. "It just ends my uncle's story with another killing," Maynard said in a phone interview.
He said he and his daughter Anna Lee are considering attending a vigil to be held by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty if the execution goes forward.
Sutton still has two appeals pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. One questions the fairness of his sentencing. The other questions whether jurors were unduly prejudiced against Sutton by the security measures at his trial that included shackling and handcuffing Sutton and placing armed officers around the courtroom.
Lee, who is a Methodist minister in Knoxville and no relation to Gov. Bill Lee, said her faith informs how she sees the execution.
“I have a deep belief in the sanctity and sacredness of human life, and I believe no life is beyond the redemption of God's grace," she said.
Gov. Lee is a devout Christian who often speaks of his faith, but it did not lead him to commute Sutton's sentence or the sentences of three men executed since he took office, including one who became a devout Christian and religious leader while in prison.
In response to Lee's decision not to intervene in the execution, Sutton's clemency attorney Kevin Sharp, a former U.S. District Court judge, issued a statement Wednesday calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime case for clemency.”
“We will continue to seek every available avenue of possible relief for Mr. Sutton because his execution is opposed by many family members of victims, many of the jurors who originally sentenced him to death but recognize his changes, and by the extraordinarily high number of correction professionals who came forward on his behalf,” Sutton's statement reads.
Sutton is scheduled to be executed at a Nashville maximum security prison Thursday evening. He was moved to a cell next to the death chamber Tuesday and put under 24-hour surveillance.
Sutton has chosen to die in the electric chair, an option in Tennessee for prisoners whose crimes were committed before 1999. If executed, Sutton would be the fifth person to die in the state's electric chair in the past 16 months.