FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- Tennessee's top correctional official said Wednesday that there was “no issue” during the state's latest electrocution after witnesses reported seeing smoke above the inmate's head during the execution.
Correction Commissioner Tony Parker told The Associated Press it wasn't smoke. He reiterated the department's stance that it was steam that briefly hovered over the 53-year-old Lee Hall when he was electrocuted Dec. 5.
“That’s something that in many cases you would expect to see,” Parker said. “When you have the solution that’s there with the electricity and the heat that is generated there, it’s not unusual.”
Media witnesses, including the AP, reported seeing a small plume of white smoke after Hall received two jolts of electricity while strapped to the chair.
To date, no witnesses have reported seeing steam or smoke during the previous three electrocutions since the state began resuming executions in August 2018.
“As far as our protocols, that process went off just as it was designed to,” Parker said.
Court records show that Hall killed his estranged girlfriend, 22-year-old Traci Crozier, on April 17, 1991, by setting her car ablaze with a container of gasoline that he lit and tossed in her vehicle while she was still inside. The container exploded and Crozier suffered burns across more than 90% of her body, dying the next day in the hospital.
After his conviction, Hall eventually lost his eyesight while spending decades on death row and became the first blind inmate to be electrocuted since the 1976 resumption of U.S. executions.
Gov. Bill Lee also said Wednesday that he was confident in the correction agency's conclusion that Hall's execution went as designed.
“I trust the process was done well,” Lee said.
Lee pointed out that Hall chose the electric chair over lethal injection — an option allowed inmates in the state who were convicted of crimes before January 1999.
“That particular inmate’s desire, his choice in which type of execution — he made that choice and they carried that out professionally,” Lee said.
John Spragens, who served on Hall's legal team, disagreed with the state's assertion that what witnesses saw was steam, and called for an independent investigation into Hall's execution.
“The smoke appeared to me to be dark, inconsistent with the state’s explanation that it was steam, ” Spragens said. “If Gov. Lee and the attorney general intend to continue executing prisoners, they should at least ensure that the process of electrocuting someone does not generate smoke or fire.”
Spragens added that the people of Tennessee “deserve to be assured that the state is not burning or torturing inmates in the electric chair.”
Lee, a Republican, had decided against delaying Hall's execution after being asked by the prisoner's legal team for more time to pursue questions about a possible biased juror who helped hand down the original death sentence in the early 1990s.
Lee has also declined to intervene in the two other execution cases that have come across his desk since taking over the top elected office in January.
Tennessee is one of six states in which inmates can choose the electric chair, but it’s the only state that has used the chair in recent years