KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — After one of two men sentenced to death for a pair of 1992 Blount County murders died on death row, his co-defendant continues to fight to have his sentence overturned while executions remain on hold in Tennessee.
James Dellinger, 71, died on death row Monday of apparent natural causes. He sentenced to death for the 1992 murders of siblings Tommy Griffin and Connie Branam in Blount County.
Dellinger’s nephew, Gary Sutton, was his co-defendant in the murders and was also sentenced to death. Sutton, 57, remains on death row today.
“From a very young age, James Dellinger was the controlling, older, abusive figure in Gary’s life, and this remained so even while the two were in prison. Gary has maintained his innocence and Gary’s case is riddled with errors that led to his conviction. We look forward to continuing to make our case to the State and Governor Lee.”Attorney Susanne Bales
According to Sutton’s attorney, he has an intellectual disability claim pending. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
WATE 6 On Your Side Legal Analyst Greg Isaacs said Dellinger’s death will not impact Sutton’s case legally, but his attorney will likely try to bring attention back to the case.
“If you’re his lawyer what you want to do is get the governor’s attention, get the parole boards attention and ask for a commutation,” Isaacs said.
Isaacs said Sutton has exhausted his appeals, but there is another claim often made in death penalty cases.
“You’re typically left with Eighth Amendment claims regarding whether the death penalty as applied to this particular individual is cruel and unusual,” Isaacs said.
Executions in Tennessee have been on hold since 2020 after Gov. Bill Lee confirmed the state failed to ensure its lethal injection drugs were tested properly before the scheduled execution of Oscar Smith.
A recently-released independent review found that the state failed to comply with its own lethal injection protocol multiple times since 2018. Lee said the Tennessee Supreme Court is unlikely to schedule any executions until changes to the lethal injection process are made by state corrections officials.
It’s not known when those changes will be completed. There are 46 inmates currently on death row in Tennessee.