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."