A Man in Tennessee Is Set for Execution, but a Group Including Prison Guards and a Victim's Daughter Is Pleading for Clemency

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Nicholas Sutton isn’t a good guy. Or wasn’t.

He’s been serving multiple life sentences for killing three people in 1979 at the age of 18 — the victims included his own grandmother.


In 1985, he was hit with a death sentence — for killing a child rapist while in jail.

His execution date is February 19th, and some have petitioned for clemency.

From CBS News:

Seven former and current officials, including [Tom Eden], requested Lee to commute Sutton’s death sentence. The petition cited three separate occasions where Sutton stepped in to protect corrections staff from violence.

Who’s Tom? He was a corrections officer at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville in 1985 — during the state’s historic riots.

Now 61, he recalled to CBS that he was cornered by inmates while the buildings were set ablaze.

He narrowly escaped being taken hostage. According to Tom, Nicholas saved his life.

For some of his greatest blessings, he credits a man set to be electrocuted to death on Thursday:

“I have four boys and a girl now who probably wouldn’t be here if that day turned out differently. I wouldn’t have the life I have today if it weren’t for Nick.”

Sutton’s attorney — Kevin Sharp — says the prison system needs residents like him:

“You need people like Nick who make the place safer. He’s not getting out, all we’re asking for is the governor commute his execution. He would still die in prison, just not by the electric chair.”

As for his fatal stabbing of an inmate, the condemned’s lawyers claim it was a situation of “kill or be killed.”

Furthermore, the oldest daughter of that convicted sex offender is in the Pro-Nick camp:


In a clemency petition filed on January 14, she [advocated] against the execution, saying “the pain and suffering her family has endured would only be made worse” if Sutton was killed.

Some believe Nicholas has made a foundational change within:

Advocates now argue that Sutton has undergone a “profound transformation” during his 34 years on death row. Prison records show no serious disciplinary actions since 1990 and lawyers claim he makes the prison safer through counseling and caring for other inmates.

Another hopeful supporter: Nicholas’s wife, Reba who he married 26 years ago in prison. The two connected as pen pals.

Tom was their Best Man:

“He asked me to be the best man in his wedding. That’s the only thing he ever asked for that I know of. And all he wanted was just for me to stand there.”

According to John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Evan Mandery, a strange thing about the death penalty is that it’s so delayed, the person executed isn’t the criminal:

“The death penalty takes so long to administer, you’re commonly executing people who are very different than the youthful offender who committed the crime. Mr. Sutton’s case seems like a very extreme example of this.”

On Wednesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee officially denied clemency for Nicholas after “careful consideration” and “a thorough review of the case.”

The decision could be reversed up ’til the moment Nicholas sits into the chair.


What’s your opinion of the death penalty in general and this case in particular?

It seems to me that the decades Nicholas was given to do good was decades more than his victims received; whatever transformation he accomplished was made on borrowed time. It also isn’t hard to believe a 58-year-old is a far different person than he was at 18.

Attorney Kevin described his client’s situation to Knox News thusly:

Nick Sutton’s is a once-in-a-lifetime case for clemency. He has saved the lives of three correction officials during his incarceration; his request for clemency was supported by seven former and current Tennessee correction professionals, family members of victims, five of the original jurors and others.”

And here’s a bit from the petition:

Sheriff’s Deputy Howard Ferrell, who is now deceased, previously testified that in 1979 Nick stepped in to stop another inmate from attacking him from behind while Deputy Ferrell attempted to break up a serious fight between two inmates. Deputy Ferrell was acting as a jailer in the Hamblen County Jail at the time and was surrounded by up to 60 inmates as he tried to separate them. Nick grabbed an inmate who was about to strike Deputy Ferrell from behind with the head of a push broom. Nick tackled the inmate just as he was about to land a blow to the back of Deputy Ferrell’s head. He then pinned the inmate to the ground until other deputies could arrive and secure the scene. According to Deputy Ferrell: “he [Nick] probably could have saved my life.”

Nick also cared for fellow inmates who faced severe and debilitating health problems— even death—had Nick not intervened. (A 30, at 1). Joyce House, the mother of exonerated death row inmate Paul House, describes Nick as her son’s “saving grace” while his health rapidly deteriorated after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while incarcerated. (A10, at 2). Paul was denied access to a wheelchair or walker while on death row and was forced to crawl on the floor on his hands and knees. He was left to shower sitting on the bathroom floor. Nick refused to allow his friend to “live his life like that” and began carrying Paul around the prison. (A10, at 1). He took Paul to the shower every day and helped him clean himself. Nick did whatever he could to protect Paul and ease his suffering as his body betrayed him. Nick consoled Paul at night when he sat in his cell and cried himself to sleep. (A10, at 1). Ms. House stresses: “[A]s my son often told me, Nick is the only reason Paul is alive today. As a mother, it was so difficult not to be able to care for my son. I owe so much to Nick for providing Paul with the care that I was unable to give him.” (A10, at 6).

Nick also saved the life of Pervis Payne, another death row inmate, when he nearly died from a punctured intestinal tract. “As Nick walked by Pervis’s cell, he saw Pervis stagger and brace himself against the wall for balance.” (A11, at 1). Rather than let his friend collapse, Nick ran to get the Unit Manager and insisted that she call for medical assistance. (A11, at 2). Because of Nick’s actions, Pervis was rushed to an outside hospital for emergency life-saving surgery. Pervis credits Nick with saving his life. (A11, at 2). Pervis remained in the hospital for about a month and returned to the prison in a severely weakened condition. Nick continued to care for and look out for his friend as he recovered from surgery. Pervis was much too weak to do his assigned job, so Nick did his work for him for several months. This allowed Pervis to keep his job with its modest wages and earn some money while he recovered from surgery. (A11, at 2).


Below is the petition in its entirety:



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