US prison guards request clemency for death row inmate

Factfile on executions in the United States, where 22 inmates were put to death in 2019 (AFP Photo/Laurence CHU)

Washington (AFP) - Current and former prison guards in Tennessee on Tuesday asked the southern US state's governor to spare a death row inmate, claiming he saved the lives of three staff members.

Nick Sutton, 59, was sentenced to death for the January 1985 murder of another prisoner, Carl Estep, while he was already serving a life sentence for killing his grandmother in 1979.

Sutton, who was also convicted over two other murders, is to be executed on February 20.

But his attorneys, with the backing of at least seven current and former prison officials and some relatives of his victims, have submitted a petition for clemency to Republican Governor Bill Lee.

"I owe my life to Nick Sutton," said corrections officer Tony Eden, explaining that when inmates tried to take him hostage during a 1985 prison riot, Sutton helped escort him to safety.

In 1994, he helped a prison guard who had fallen and lost consciousness by alerting other personnel.

Sutton also helped save the lives of two inmates, his lawyers say.

"I saw Nick grow and change over many years, and I strongly believe that Nick Sutton is not the same man who stood trial for capital murder," Eden wrote in an affidavit.

"Nick Sutton is a prime example of a person's ability to change and that those convicted of murder can be rehabilitated."

Even some members of the jury that sentenced Sutton to death now support his request for clemency, according to a statement from his lawyers.

A judge present for Sutton's appeal says his defense counsel failed to present evidence about his difficult upbringing, which might have been seen as extenuating circumstances.

Estep's eldest daughter Rosemary says her family wants to see Sutton removed from death row.

After a nine-year pause, Tennessee reinstated capital punishment in 2018 and has since put five inmates to death, three of them using the electric chair.

Last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 22 prisoners were executed in seven states -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

There have been no executions so far in the United States in 2020. Texas has scheduled one for Wednesday, the DPIC says.