Death Penalty

Corrections Officers, Jurors, and the Families of Nick Sutton's Victims Want Him Taken Off Death Row

The Tennessee death row inmate "has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver."


It's not often that one hears of seven correctional officers and personnel, the family of a murder victim, and former jurors ask for the life of a death row inmate to be spared. That's exactly what's happening in Tennessee. A clemency petition asking Gov. Bill Lee to spare the life of Nick Sutton was filed on Tuesday.

Tennessee has executed six death row inmates over the past two years. Sutton, 58, has been on death row for over half of his life and will be the seventh to die if his execution, scheduled for February 20, 2020, proceeds.

Sutton was convicted of four murders, all carried out while he was between the ages of 18 and 23. His victims include Dorothy Sutton (his paternal grandmother), Charles Almon, John Large (a friend of his), and Carl Estep, who he killed while in prison. The Tennessean details the murders here.

"Nick Sutton has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver," reads the petition that now asks the governor to commute his death row sentence to a life sentence.

Supporters argue Sutton is one of the "most rehabilitated" prisoners they've met. A few of them credit Sutton with literally saving their lives. A website created on behalf of Sutton's appeal shares testimonies from at least five different people sharing stories of how he stepped in to help them and others while behind bars.

Tony Eden, a retired Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) lieutenant, said five armed inmates surrounded him during a prison riot in an attempt to take him hostage. That's when Sutton and another inmate confronted the others. They managed to get Eden out of the situation before escorting him to safety. "I owe my life to Nick Sutton," he added.

Eden was quoted in the clemency petition saying that he would welcome Sutton into his home if he were released tomorrow. In Eden's opinion, Sutton, "more than anyone else on Tennessee's Death Row, deserves to live."

Other correctional officers explained how Sutton assisted them in situations where he or other inmates could have easily taken advantage of them. The petition notes examples of how the man who once killed another man behind bars has since taken it upon himself to care for his ailing fellow inmates.

Sutton received high compliments from seven current and former correctional officers and counselors for his behavior:

"Living proof of the possibility of rehabilitation and the power of redemption."

"An honest, kind and trustworthy man who has used his time in prison to better himself and show that change is possible."

"A man who has not only rehabilitated himself but works to help other inmates improve their lives."

Sutton also has support from the family members of his grandmother, as well as the families of two of his other victims.

"It breaks my heart that Mr. Sutton has lost so much of his life on death row for killing my father," said Rosemary Hall, Estep's eldest daughter, in the petition. Speaking on behalf of her family, Hall expressed that killing Sutton would bring further suffering. 

Nick's cousin, Lowell Sutton, said his family supports a life sentence for the death of his aunt. Sutton added, "although the loss of my aunt was very hard on our family, I forgive Nick, our family forgives Nick, and we do not want him to be executed."

Five members of the jury who sentenced Sutton to death row over 30 years ago also want him removed from death row. The jurors wrote that while they previously were in favor of Sutton receiving the death penalty, they now support a life sentence because of his rehabilitation.

Sutton is being represented pro bono by Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge. Sharp notably stepped down from his lifetime appointment after being forced to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, which he deemed unfair in the case.

"Nick has worked tirelessly to change his life during his 34 years on death row and his transformation is nothing short of extraordinary," Sharp said in a statement provided to Reason. "We should trust the correction professionals who have seen how Mr. Sutton behaves and are taking the highly unusual step of personally advocating for clemency in his case. Their support demonstrates that justice and the public good would be best served through granting Nick executive clemency."

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  1. No one wants to be confronted by the fact that redemption is possible and justice is seldom obvious. This case is an assault on our cherished institutions.

    1. A life for a life. Seems obvious to me.

      1. IceTrey wants the death penalty for women that had an abortion. You heard it here first.

        1. Why did you run from the global warming thread? Are you admitting you dont know basic science?

        2. Hey chipper. Why did you lie about what my comment said dummy? Why did you create a strawman? Is it because you’re scientifically illiterate? You got caught proving your ignorance so tried to wiggle out. How precious.

          1. I favor tormenting him about it endlessly, like how I never let Chemjeff forget that he is ultimately Pedo Jeffy.

        3. You want post-birth abortion.

  2. He has lived 32 years too long.

    The four people he killed were not offered clemency. Their cries to not be killed were not shouted throughout the media.

    They were simply killed. By Nick Sutton.

    He has already used up too much air.

    I do not understand how anyone who calls themselves ‘libertarian’ can ask that someone who ripped the first and most precious liberty from a person should –not just be allowed to live—, but be allowed to live AT OUR EXPENSE.

    Kill it.

    1. “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

      Yeah. I’m quoting Gandalf. But still….

      1. I cannot give life to Nick Sutton’s victims. No one can. But Nick Sutton decided that he had the right to take that life from them.

        What did Gandalf do to the evil creatures that took the lives of others at whim?

        He killed them. He did not show reticence in killing trolls who were simply feeding themselves. Nor did he spare the orcs defending their homes. He did not intercede on behalf of the Easterlings, Haradrim or Corsairs.

        Because he understood that sometimes you must act, and sometimes that action involves killing those who do evil.

    2. I agree. Fuck him.

    3. As a moral and ethical principle, I agree with you.

      As a practical matter, every government that has empowered itself to execute prisoners has proved that it cannot be trusted with that power, and as such I do not trust the United States government, or any subsidiary state, with that power.

      1. As a practical matter, every government that has empowered itself to execute prisoners has proved that it cannot be trusted with that power, and as such I do not trust the United States government, or any subsidiary state, with that power.

        Nor do I.

        But, in the US, it is not the government that wields that power. It is the people. by virtue of the jury.

        So many people ignore that fact–acting as if the state declares that a criminal will be put to death. That is not what happens. Pretending that it is does nothing but allow the farcical belief that it is a form of tyranny.

    4. The death penalty is one of those issues that separates standard conservatives from libertarian-leaning conservatives.

    5. I disagree completely, and for reasons going far beyond this one case.
      Imagine a time, say, three years from today, when a guy who has been sent to death row if faced with the choice of continuing to be a thug, or changing his life. Do you want him to have an incentive to do the right thing, or do you want him thinking that he can only be killed once, so he might as well keep being a thug? Multiply this by hundreds of thousands times that the decision must be made over the next decade or so.
      The people who are in contact with him say that he has changed. I think it’s worth the cost to keep him alive, as an example to others — and so that he can keep doing good things in prison.

      1. Imagine a time, say, three years from today, when a guy who has been sent to death row is faced with the choice of continuing to be a thug, or changing his life.

        He’s on death row. He’s run out of choices.

        Do you want him to have an incentive to do the right thing, or do you want him thinking that he can only be killed once, so he might as well keep being a thug?

        I want him to be a corpse. He’s on death row. He’s already MADE the choices that got him here. He’s thrown away his life by taking the lives of others.

        That ‘thug or change your life’ choice you keep prattling on about? He’s already blown past that, at speed, with dead people in his wake.

        He’s made his choice. And now he pays.

        Multiply this by hundreds of thousands times that the decision must be made over the next decade or so.

        The decision? Be a thug or not? I think, if I strung up every gang banging thug in the neighborhoods they terrorize, you’d find a whole lot more people choosing to be good people. Because the alternative is death.

  3. Sling Blade

    1. An excellent movie

  4. His redemption isn’t really an argument for or against the death penalty.

    Perhaps it was the death penalty that convinced him to rethink his priorities.

    It’s just not relevant.

    The primary reason to oppose the death penalty is that we don’t trust the state to use the power. If this guy killed 4 people, on at least 2 separate occasions, then it’s unlikely to be an example of the state misusing its power. If every death row inmate were this obviously a killer, then it wouldn’t be controversial.

    1. ” If every death row inmate were this obviously a killer, then it wouldn’t be controversial.”

      The death penalty opponents do tend to focus on the corner cases almost exclusively while ignoring the egregious and horrific cases where doubt is non existent.

      What also gets ignored is all those other egregious and horrific cases where doubt is non existent but the death penalty is not sought or imposed.

  5. Four murders, huh? Sounds like he exceeded his quota. I’m not sure what to think about this situation.

  6. This certainly seems like a situation to restore what used to be fairly common. I’m sure the practice has always been a bit different at the state level, but Presidential clemency was quite common. Even Obama who became serious re clemency/pardons for non-violent drug offenses in his 2nd term – with the result that he granted more than any Prez since Truman – would have been considered a vengeful piker by guys like Grant, Hays, Hoover, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, etc.

    One of my ancestors was granted death penalty clemency (by Lincoln – who just as an example used that power as often as both Bush’s combined with 10% of the peeps) and he WAS a Confederate spy with no ‘redemption’ other than that he had been shot escaping from prison for the fourth time and was disabled for the remainder of the war. Another one also was under death penalty in England but was sentenced to transportation instead.

    A release is something different. Maybe that is ‘risky’. But I don’t understand why simple clemency re a sentence is viewed as politically risky.

  7. I am very glad that Sutton has taken the amount of time he has had to turn his life around and stop being the killer he once was. And certainly, it is absolutely within the purview of the governor to grant clemency. And it sounds like if anyone on death row (who is legitimately there) deserves clemency, it is Sutton.
    But I believe that in this case the death penalty is absolutely just. I personally don’t find it very compelling that the family members of murder victims forgive the murderer. The only people who can truly forgive him are dead and gone. And can NEVER receive clemency. That is why murder is the worst crime. Because in every other crime, the victim can recover from. It may be difficult, but it is possible. But with murder, there is no recovery.
    Bottom line:
    Justice is served with executing this man.
    However, mercy could be served by the governor granting him clemency and reduce his sentence to life in prison.

    1. Well said.

      It reminds me of the story of a young Frenchman sentenced to death whose mother approached the Emperor Napoleon to plead for a pardon. When Napoleon said that justice demanded his execution, the mother replied that she was not asking for justice but rather pleading for mercy. When Napoleon said the young man did not deserve mercy, the mother replied that if her son deserved it, it would not be mercy. Whereupon Napoleon spared her son.

  8. Why should the fact that he has cheerleaders mean anything? Some extremely horrible people in history have had people saying how great they were right up until the bitter end. He killed four people in cold blood. His only plea now should be with God.

  9. He killed 4 people!

    The only reason to be against the death penalty, and it’s a good one, is that innocent people are often convicted.

    But that’s not the case here.

    Meanwhile, Reason not only supports abortion, it supports government funded abortion.

  10. I don’t favor the death penalty being in the hands of the government so I’d argue for life no matter what, but neither do I favor this sort of exception to “equality before the law” for sympathetic defendants. Or sympathetic victims, either, like this “victim’s rights” shit pushed by at least one of the guys next door. There’s a reason Justice wears a blindfold.

  11. I don’t have strong feelings on this case. While I’m generally opposed to the death penalty as a practical matter†, I’m not opposed as a moral/ethical matter and wouldn’t be bothered if the man was executed.

    On the flip-side, I do have a problem with life-in-prison, particularly when the person is incarcerated at a young age. While this may once posed a danger to society and people at-large, it seems that has passed. Holding him behind bars, at this point, is just a matter of petty vengeance, not justice.

    So I’m in a bit of a moral quandary. The ethical options are, to me, execution or freedom. Life-in-prison is the least ethical/moral outcome. But at the same time, I don’t trust the government with the death penalty. But lets be honest, freedom isn’t really a likely option.

    More generally, this gets worse when you think about the advances in medical science that keep extending our lifespans. It’s quite possible that within this century humankind will achieve a very expensive kind of effective immortality, which will make life-in-prison even more questionable.

    Ultimately, we, as a nation, need to decide what is the purpose of our criminal justice system. Is it vengeance, rehabilitation, or threat containment? Ultimately, only one of those purposes is supported by this man’s execution or incarceration.

    But I digress. Point being, it’s an interesting illustration of how people can change with age, but I don’t have strong feelings about how this is going to turn out. And I suspect that the only shot at a just outcome passed decades ago.
    †I don’t trust the government with this power.

  12. The death penalty is NOT in the hands of the government.

    It is in the hands of the people.

    Until you fully understand that you can have no valid opinion on this subject–only feelings fueled by ignorance.

    If this….person is fully redeemed, if he is fully rehabilitated then he should be completely willing to pay for the horrors he has committed. But he is not.

    1. /eyeroll

      Okay then. Then people have proven, in every government where they have the power, that they cannot be trusted to use the death penalty wisely.


      1. No. Because that’s an enormous shifting of the goalposts.

        Governments summarily handing out death sentences is immoral and unethical.

        The people, having listened to the evidence and coming to a decision deciding that a criminal is too dangerous to live is not.

        The fact is, the practical situation you decry does not exist. What I describe does exist.

        You seem uncomfortable with the idea of putting down an animal that kills without compunction when said animal is human.

        Understandable, but the people that animal kills are just as dead as those killed by a four legged animal, who we do put down. And the four legged animal is rarely killing for fun.

  13. Over thirty years in death row? FFS, the appeals system is bullshit.

  14. He should be grateful for all the time the ‘justice’ system has afforded him, and accept his wholly earned fate.

    His change only demonstrates that he didn’t have to be that way back when he was murdering others.

    It’s all tragedy, and it’s all on him.

  15. The prison system took a quadruple murderer and turned him into an upstanding potential citizen. Just imagine what it could do for your average citizen!

  16. It just occurred to me:

    “Corrections Officers, Jurors, and the Families of Nick Sutton’s Victims Want Him Taken Off Death Row”

    Well, then, carrying out the death sentence would have the effect of taking him off death row.

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