The Electrocution of William Tines

William James Tines of Knoxville was born in 1923 or 1924. He had no parental guidance. His father was imprisoned at Brushy Mountain in Morgan County, dying in 1937. His mother abandoned him.

So Tines turned to crime at an early age. He resided in reform schools for multiple robberies and thefts. By age 17 he was at Brushy for robbery. He escaped and was quickly caught. In 1944 he was a free man.

But not for long. On Jan. 22, 1945, Tines murdered John Lewis Johnson and Marshall Kyle in the Lonsdale community after a gambling dispute. Guilty pleas placed him back at Brushy Mountain to serve two life sentences.

Incredibly, Tines was working outside prison walls as a trusty on Tuesday, April 23, 1957. He decided to take a hike. After spending a rainy night in the woods, which hid his scent from tracking dogs, he ended up near Harriman on Highway 61.

There he approached the house of Luther and Margaret Nichols around 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 24. The owners weren’t home, but daily housekeeper Bertha Riggs, a 45-year-old widow, was ironing clothes.

Tines in his prison stripes was spotted by Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Carter as they drove by. By the time the owners and law enforcement were alerted, however, William Tines had beaten and raped Mrs. Riggs. The phone fell off the hook during the struggle, and subscribers to the party line heard the victim’s screams.

Tines fled, then realized flight was hopeless. He flagged down THP officer Cecil Strater and surrendered.

Taken back to the prison, he confessed on Friday, Sept. 26. His interrogators were State Criminal Investigator John Pennington and Sheriff Robert Delaney. Because Tines could neither read nor write, he simply scrawled “William Tines” at the end of the document Pennington read to him.

Tines was tried at the Roane County Courthouse in Kingston on July 10 and 11, 1957. Judge Sue K. Hicks presided; Generals Beecher Witt and James Watkins prosecuted; Sterling Roberts, Kenneth Deatheridge and Bronce Johnson defended. In those days rape was a capital offense, and the prosecution sought the death penalty.

The State called as witnesses the persons named above plus Dr. T. L. Bowman, who treated Bertha Riggs during her week in the hospital. The defense called only one witness, William Tines. Let’s examine the bill of exceptions to explore what he swore:

  • “I went in this house to get me some food and some clothes.”
  • “I run across this lady and this lady screamed and sort of scared me, and I struck this lady and then I don’t know what happened after then; I lost my senses.”
  • “I did not rape this woman.”
  • “I don’t know what I signed; I was under the impression that they would get me a lawyer to help me or something.”

The jury was out about half an hour and returned this verdict: “We find the defendant guilty as charged in the indictment, and we fix death by electrocution.” The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed on June 6, 1958, in a brief opinion by Justice John Swepston. You can read it at 203 Tenn. 612 or 315 S.W.2d 111.

William James Tines was strapped in the electric chair on Nov. 7, 1960. He was pronounced dead at 5:12 a.m. Brought back to Knoxville, he’s buried in an unmarked grave at the Good Samaritan Cemetery adjacent to Odd Fellows.

Many thought Tines was the last prisoner executed by electrocution. He wasn’t. Take a look at Tenn. Code Ann. §40-23-114. Although lethal injection is the current method of legal killing, a condemned prisoner who committed a crime prior to Jan. 1, 1999, can elect between electrocution and lethal injection. Daryl Keith Holton murdered his four children in 1997. He elected the electric chair in 2007.


Don PAine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute.