Tennessee’s governor announced Tuesday that he won’t stop this week’s scheduled execution of an inmate who maintains his accomplice was the one who fatally stabbed a mother and her daughter in 1986.
Stephen West is set to receive a lethal injection Thursday at a maximum-security prison in Nashville. He was found guilty of the kidnapping and stabbing deaths of 51-year-old Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila Romines. He also was convicted of the teenager’s rape.
“After thorough consideration of Stephen West’s request for clemency and a review of the case, the State of Tennessee’s sentence will stand, and I will not be intervening,” Gov. Bill Lee said in his statement Tuesday.
In a clemency plea to Lee, attorneys for West wrote that then 17-year-old Ronnie Martin actually killed both victims. West was 23 at the time. Their cases were separated, and while West was sentenced to death, Martin pleaded guilty as a juvenile and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 2030.
Four inmates have been executed in Tennessee since August 2018. Two died by the state’s preferred method, lethal injection, and two chose the electric chair, arguing it would be a quicker and less painful way to die than the three-drug method. In declining to choose an execution method, West is to receive a lethal injection by default.
West’s attorney has argued that some “feasible and readily implemented alternative methods of execution exist that significantly reduce the substantial risk of severe pain and suffering” compared with the state’s three-drug protocol or electrocution: a single bullet to the back of the head, a firing squad, a “euthanasia oral cocktail” or one-drug pentobarbital, according to a February court filing.
West has an appeal remaining before the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, the state of Tennessee wrote that West was sentenced to death for “brutally stabbing” the two victims to death. Additionally, an expert at West’s trial concluded two people were involved in stabbing the teen.
Regardless of the arguments about who killed the women, Tennessee is one of 27 states that allow executions of “non-triggermen” convicted of involvement in a felony resulting in a victim’s death, even if they didn’t kill anyone themselves, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
West’s clemency filing says the jury never heard a jail recording from Martin saying he carried out the killings, not West. But a 1989 state Supreme Court opinion rejected the recording as uncorroborated hearsay that wouldn’t have exonerated West.
West’s attorney opted against playing the tape at sentencing because the judge would have allowed other recordings in which Martin incriminated West, court records show.
West’s attorneys also said the jury didn’t hear about his abusive upbringing because his parents paid for his lead lawyer. They wrote that the abuse created conditions that made West freeze in response to traumatic events.
West was born in an Indiana mental institution where his mother was committed after trying to kill herself by inhaling carbon monoxide from a gas oven while pregnant with him, the clemency filing stated.
The clemency plea added that West has been taking powerful medication to treat mental illness in prison and is involved with a prison ministries organization, Men of Valor.
It’s the same group Lee touted and worked with as a board member and mentor. Lee, who emphasized his Christian faith while running for his first term, opted against intervening in the first execution under his watch in May — that of an inmate who had undergone a religious conversion.
Lee said he has never met West.
“The criminal justice process made a determination years and years ago about this case and I trust that system and that process, and that’s what I rely on as I go through this process,” Lee told reporters Monday ahead of his decision.
Another Tennessee execution is scheduled in December.
Charles Walton Wright had been scheduled to be put to death in October, but died in prison in May.