NASHVILLE — Hours before Edmund Zagorski was scheduled to die, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam stopped preparation for his execution, allowing multiple legal challenges to continue winding through the courts.
Haslam issued a temporary reprieve Thursday afternoon after several days of rapid-fire developments put the state on the defensive. The governor's decision followed a stay issued by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which the state challenged.
Although Haslam's reprieve was officially for 10 days, it will likely take longer than that for a new execution date to be set.
Previously reported: Death row inmate to be executed Thursday chooses electric chair for execution
The Tennessee Supreme Court will set the new date. That court's decision likely will be guided by the outcome of three separate legal challenges that were ongoing late Thursday:
- The stay from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals remains in effect while that court weighs whether Zagorski may pursue claims his trial attorneys made errors in representing him. The state attorney general's office asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the stay Thursday; the high court has yet to act.
- Zagorski sued this week to force the state to use the electric chair for his execution, and a federal judge issued an order temporarily barring the state from executing him by lethal injection while that suit is pending.
- Zagorski’s attorneys also asked the U.S. Supreme Court for another stay so the high court could review a constitutional challenge to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.
Haslam specifically cited the electric chair suit in his reprieve, suggesting that a delay would give the state time to prepare to execute Zagorski using the electric chair.
“I take seriously the responsibility imposed upon the Tennessee Department of Correction and me by law, and given the federal court’s decision to honor Zagorski’s last-minute decision to choose electrocution as the method of execution, this brief reprieve will give all involved the time necessary to carry out the sentence in an orderly and careful manner,” Haslam said in a statement.
The state initially refused Zagorski's request to be executed by the electric chair, saying he was too late and hadn't given them two weeks' notice to prepare.
But District Judge Aleta Trauger at noon Thursday said the state could not use lethal injection until Zagorski's claim had been heard.
Trauger's order, combined with the 6th Circuit's stay, led to confusion as his scheduled 7 p.m. execution loomed. But prison officials continued their preparations for his death, anticipating the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court might intervene and allow the execution to move forward.
Haslam's reprieve stopped those preparations — the Tennessee Department of Correction announced Thursday night that Zagorski would be moved out of his cell next to the execution chamber and back to his spot on death row.
Zagorski, 63, faces death for the April 1983 murders of John Dale Dotson and Jimmy Porter.
He shot them, slit their throats and stole their money and a truck, prosecutors say. The two men had expected to buy 100 pounds of marijuana from Zagorski.
Verna Wyatt, an advocate with Tennessee Voices for Victims, has been in contact with victim Dotson’s family as the challenges and uncertainty piled up.
“What this process does to the victims’ families is barbaric,” Wyatt said. “Thirty-four years, they don’t get justice and it’s an ongoing reliving of their grief and what happened to their loved one.
“If they won’t fix this system, it should be abolished. This is not justice on any level. It’s outrageous.”