Posted by: Amy Mohan on Nov 1, 2020

Journal Issue Date: Nov/Dec 2020

Journal Name: Vol. 56. No. 9

This is my story. 

My first experience with Tennessee’s death row was in 2006. It was short and impactful and still haunts me to this day. I watched a man I didn’t know and had never met say goodbye to his children through glass and take his last breath. 

Prior to walking into that prison, I didn’t know how I felt about the death penalty. In my gut, it didn’t seem right, but as a television reporter, I reported almost nightly on horrific crimes and there was some appeal to the reasoning of “an eye for an eye.”

I was a television news reporter with the local CBS affiliate in Nashville, Tennessee. Then, as now, the Tennessee Department of Correction follows a type of lottery system where it picks seven media witnesses out of a hat to witness an execution. It was a completely random act that now seems strangely fated. If my name had not been picked out of that hat, I don’t know if I would have ever taken a deep look at the death penalty or even visited death row. But that one random act seemed to resurface several times over the next 13 years.     

Sedley Alley’s 2006 execution occurred in the middle of the night on June 28, 2006. Mr. Alley’s attorneys had always insisted he was innocent. But the system moved forward. Mr. Alley died by lethal injection with his children, his attorney, and seven media witnesses watching. No one from the victim’s family witnessed the execution. 

Each member of the media relayed what we saw in a press conference immediately after the event, and I filed a story that ran later that morning. I declined an offer from my employer for a session with a therapist and instead spoke in the wee hours of the morning to my father, a psychiatrist. Frankly, at the time, it was not a highly emotional event for me. But in the last few years, I find myself reliving that night more and more, feeling the emotion of those few minutes I witnessed. 

At the time, it was just confusing. I felt like I witnessed what was supposed to be this huge event, yet it was almost anticlimactic. I was not bothered as much by seeing a man die as I was by the fact that it appeared that absolutely nothing had changed after the execution, despite the fact that the State had just killed a man. 

Mr. Alley, like all death row inmates, was placed on death watch a few days before the scheduled execution. We did live shots from the prison where armed guards with S.W.A.T. type uniforms put the prison on lockdown and increased security in an already intensely secure facility in order to proceed with the execution of a man who had lived behind bars for more than three decades. In the days preceding, I interviewed the victim’s family as they talked about the inconsolable loss of a child through a tormented and violent death. They had decided not to attend the execution. Yet despite all the drama and emotion of the days leading up to the execution, it felt as if nothing changed in the minutes after. The prison system went back to its normal procedures. The tents set up in front of the prison were taken down. The media moved on. I went home, and the very next day I went back to work ready to cover some press conference or other routine story. The circus was over and Sedley Alley’s execution was now just one of many stories I had covered. 

How could it be that a man taking his last breath in front of me could be such a mundane event? That’s what I simply could not figure out about the death penalty. Did what I witnessed give justice to the family of the victim? Did it cause another person to hesitate to commit a heinous crime? Did it make the citizens of this State safer? Did prison officials feel like they had done the right thing for society? Nothing about it sat well with me, but life went on.

But Then it Got Personal

Thirteen years passed. I reported for several more years and then left to attend law school. I clerked for a year for a federal judge, ironically, the very judge who granted Sedley Alley a stay around midnight on the night he was executed. Judge Merritt, however, was reversed by his colleagues about two hours later.     After clerking, I began practicing law as a civil litigator at a small firm in Nashville. As time passed, I increasingly questioned the death penalty in terms of its justice and effectiveness, and because of my own sense of morality. Still, I had no intention of practicing criminal law or being involved legally with death penalty cases. 

Steve West

Then, last year I found myself thrust back into that world. A law school classmate asked if I would work with Stephen Michael West’s legal team on his clemency case. West had been sentenced to death for the rape and murders of a mother and daughter in Union County, Tennessee, in 1986. Overwhelming evidence, however, shows that West didn’t actually commit the murders and had no idea what his co-defendant was about to do. However, West never denied his part in the crime, as well as the fact that he witnessed, but did nothing to assist the women during their brutal murders. West was given two death sentences. His co-defendant Ronnie Martin, who was 17 years old at the time of the crime, was death ineligible. Martin received a life sentence with the possibility of parole. 

For my first visit with Steve, I walked in nervously through the front entrance of Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. That I was nervous and inexperienced could not have been any more obvious. As I fumbled to take off my high heels and follow the directions for a body scan, I was told that I could not bring in the stapled papers I had with me since a sharp staple was one of many banned items at the prison. One guard even remarked, “You don’t do this very often do you?” Little did she know, I had never done this. I practice civil litigation and usually meet my clients in a marbled office with a beautiful view of the city of Nashville. I had never given a staple a second thought. 

I was escorted back to death row where I saw Steve for the first time. As would always be the case when we met, he was in his Tennessee Vols hat with his mug full of black coffee, and equipped with his binder with a notebook, his legal papers, and a wallet sized picture of the dog he owned three decades ago. 

As I quickly learned, when visits are limited and an execution date is drawing near, there is no small talk. Steve very openly and honestly in that first meeting talked about his devout faith, his path of redemption, his intense sorrow and remorse for his involvement in these crimes, his life in prison, his involvement with Men of Valor, a Christian men’s prison ministry, and his feelings about his upcoming execution. He knew I had witnessed Alley’s execution. On that first day he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Are you ready to do this again?” I was unprepared for the question. I hesitated, feeling like I should act confidently and lawyerly and say yes. Instead, his honesty was infectious and I sheepishly said, “Actually, I don’t think so, but I want to fight hard and I want to try to help.” 

The conversation was not all serious though. Steve was known for his great sense of humor. He told some jokes on the fly. Some, you could tell, he had been waiting days for a visitor to come so he could tell. He had rehearsed the joke in his head many times.

As I sat there, the scenery around me began to fade away. I quickly forgot I was on death row sitting with a convicted man. Meeting with Steve was like having coffee with an old friend. It was fun and meaningful and the time went by quickly. That first meeting lasted several hours, and we didn’t even realize our allotted time had expired. 

Over the next few visits, I got to know Steve as a person. He talked lovingly about the first time he met his wife. He spoke proudly of his children and his grandchildren’s accomplishments. He had come to faith decades before, shortly after arriving in prison. His faith was intense, and it guided him through difficult interactions in prison. He ministered to other men on the Row as well as corrections staff. 

Steve was also remarkably compassionate. At one visit, he talked about the intense abuse he faced from his mother. His mother became pregnant by a man who was not her husband. Knowing this, she tried to kill herself by inhaling carbon monoxide from a gas oven when she was eight months pregnant. Steve survived that attempted early end to his life, but he was born in a mental institution, and when he and his mother arrived at home, suffered an immediate pattern of horrific abuse. Steve’s siblings recall an infant Steve being placed on the porch in the cold, and a young Steve hiding under the bed fearful of beatings, which would occur at any time and for any reason. Steve told me his mother allowed the entire family to eat dinner, then gave the dog the leftovers, then, if anything was left, tossed Steve his meal. Steve also told me he did not know that there was anything wrong with this cruel dynamic, as it was the only way he had ever known. 

Despite trying to keep a strong front, on the day Steve told me about this abuse, I couldn’t help but cry. As a mother myself, it’s unimaginable abuse at the hands of a mother. 

A few days later, Steve called my office. The day had come for him to make a gruesome choice —his method of execution. When I saw it was him on the phone, I figured that was why he was calling. I immediately asked him how he was feeling about all of this, if he needed anything, or if he needed a legal explanation of the process. In fact, he had simply called to see if I was okay. He said he felt bad that he made me cry and it had been bothering him ever since. He told me on the phone that I should be proud of myself, that I was doing a great job as a mom. I was getting a pep talk from a client with just weeks to live when I was supposed to be the lawyer giving him advice. But that was Steve. 

* * *

By the time I got involved in Steve’s case, clemency was really his only hope. Steve and the other inmates on death row had unsuccessfully challenged the lethal injection protocol, and his other appeals were over.  

After his trial, no reviewing court had ever fully considered certain crucial evidence such as Steve’s severe mental illness, his extensive history of childhood abuse, or his passivity during the trial. For instance,  during state post-conviction, the court refused to approve funds for a social history investigation and provided only a limited amount of money for one mental health expert. West v. State, 1998 WL 309090, *10-11 (Tenn. Court of Criminal Appeals 1998). Post-conviction counsel presented three family witnesses to testify about the abuse, and a neuropsychologist who opined that Steve suffered from major depression and a mixed personality disorder with schizoid, avoidant, self-defeating and dependent characteristics. Id. at *2, *5;. In federal habeas proceedings, the facts were more fully developed and much of the link between Mr. West’s childhood of abuse and his passivity at the time of the crime was established. However, the federal courts refused to consider that evidence under its limited review because it had not been considered by the state post-conviction court. 

This picture was taken immediately after the author met with the Governor’s counsel at the capitol. “Steve had a copy of this picture and had it taped up in his cell those last few weeks,” Mohan says. From left, front row, they are Stephen Ferrell, a federal public defender in East Tennessee who had represented Steve for about 15 years; and Mohan. Back row, Rudy Kalis and J.R. Davis, Steve’s spiritual advisors from Men of Valor; David Watkins, an attorney with the Post-Conviction Defender’s office, who the author met in law school (“He is the reason I got involved in this case,” she says.); and Phil Cramer, a partner at Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison. 

Because of this procedural Catch-22, the governor was the only one left to really consider the import of all of this crucial evidence as he considered whether to grant Steve clemency as authorized by Article III, Section 61 of the Tennessee Constitution, and Tennessee Code Annotated Sections 40-27-1012 and 40-27-105.3.  For Steve, he was not asking for a full pardon, but rather a commutation of sentence from death to life in prison.  

 As an attorney, especially one with no previous capital representation, clemency is a unique experience. Unlike my normal civil litigation practice, the argument is not really based strictly on the law, statutory interpretation,or previous case law. Instead, it’s really a holistic plea to fairness based on all of the circumstances and unconsidered evidence. It challenges your advocacy abilities as you are arguing as much or more for mercy as you are about the law.  

Although our clemency efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, one thing I take comfort in is that no stone was left unturned. The investigators and attorneys at the post-conviction office traversed the state talking to jurors and family members.  The attorneys and staff at the federal public defender’s office worked tirelessly with psychologists and other experts and had been working on the habeas petitions and other proceedings for decades prior. These lawyers had immense dedication to the process and were there with Steve and for Steve literally to the very end and even after in helping his family with funeral arrangements.  

Another attorney at SRVH, Phil Cramer, and I provided pro bono support for the clemency case, primarily working with the other attorneys on strategy, the letter and brief to the governor, and the presentation to the governor’s counsel. It’s hard to know exactly, but we spent about 100 pro bono hours on this (not including pro bono time by the experts who visited and diagnosed Steve). We also worked very closely with mental health experts and Steve’s friends and spiritual advisors from Men of Valor, Rudy Kalis and J. R. Davis. Most importantly, everyone on the team got to know Steve, which I think was just as important to him as the legal services we all provided.  

* * *

At the end of July 2019, we presented Steve’s clemency case to Governor Bill Lee’s attorneys. Governor Lee is an outspoken man of faith who has publically talked about tragic events that shaped his life and reasons he feels strongly about criminal justice reform and second chances. Governor Lee has served on the Board of Men of Valor, which he has said shaped many of his views on criminal justice. For all of these reasons, many believed that Governor Lee would be willing to grant clemency, especially for a man with severe mental illness who was not the so-called triggerman and was by all accounts, a positive influence to the men around him. 

* * *

When we presented Steve’s case to the Governor’s staff, unlike the jury, the Governor’s lawyers heard about Steve’s severe mental illness, which had been diagnosed by prison physicians. They understood that Steve was only competent to be executed because of powerful medications administered to him by prison officials. Unlike the jury, they also heard that Steve’s co-defendant, Ronnie Martin, confessed to two different people after the crime that he alone committed the murders. Steve had always taken personal responsibility over the fact that he raped one victim and stood there while Martin killed the victims, but he was not a murderer. 

A psychologist who had visited and diagnosed Steve explained to the Governor’s attorneys that the severe childhood abuse at such an early age had robbed Steve of his ability to “fight or flight.” The day of the murders, Martin asked him to go riding around with him, drinking and smoking marijuana. Several hours later, Martin stopped at the home of a girl he knew from school, and her mother let both men in the house. At some point and as a total surprise to Steve, Martin began stabbing the women, an act that would have caused most people to desperately try to intervene or at least run away. The psychological experts have explained that Steve’s early childhood trauma along with his mental illness caused him to just freeze in that moment. It’s something that haunted Steve for the next thirty-three years, as he had to cope with the fact that he did nothing to help those women. 

The jury also never heard about the horrific abuse Steve had suffered as a child because his parents paid for his defense and refused to allow his attorneys to introduce any evidence of the abuse at their hands. The governor’s attorneys also heard from Men of Valor about Steve’s journey of faith starting with his surrendering to God the very night of the crime and his conversion beginning on his second night in the county jail. It was a faith that he had held steadfast for the 33 years he spent in prison, where he quietly and without any thought of advantage or publicity practiced on a daily basis, building a clean record as a model prisoner. The attorneys also heard through affidavits from correction officers, prison nurses, friends and family about the positive influence Steve had on those around him during his incarceration. Steve didn’t just behave himself; he encouraged the men around him on death row to become better people. 

I believe the power of clemency is meant for people like Steve, where the system has failed to allow a jury of his peers to hear all of this crucial evidence. Clemency could possibly equalize what felt like a grave miscarriage of justice — that Steve faced two death sentences for murders that overwhelming evidence indicates he did not commit, while his co-defendant, the actual murderer, will be eligible for parole in just 11 years. 

The clemency team left no stone unturned, and everything seemed to be happening as it should. I started to believe that redemption was possible. Despite the horrors of his childhood, and the injustice of a system that failed to present the jury with key facts, perhaps Steve would finally get a fair chance.

* * *

The days passed, and no clemency order came from the governor’s office.

On Friday Aug. 9, Steve and I had our last contact visit. We were both cautiously optimistic that the governor would show mercy and grant Steve clemency that day or over the weekend. Yet, it was already Friday and preparations were underway to move Steve to death watch, an isolated area of the prison where an inmate waits for his execution for seventy- two hours under intense supervision. Although neither of us would say it, we were both beginning to lose hope. As I had said to Steve many times before, “I took this case on principle, but I never thought I would like you so much.” Steve joked, “Well, if you like
me so much, I guess we will have to get married.” Knowing his execution date was Aug. 15, he would joke, “Let’s do it on August 16th.” 

At the end of that visit, we hugged, hoping this was not goodbye. Steve asked me what kind of flowers I liked. I ignored the question because it seemed really trivial and instead,
pivoted to next legal steps. I didn’t understand the flowers were a quiet hint. 

I walked out of Riverbend into the grim institutional parking lot and checked my phone when I was in the car. Rudy Kalis, one of Steve’s closest friends and spiritual advisors, had texted me the night before saying he had something that Steve wanted to give me and only he could deliver it. Although Rudy — a longtime sports anchor and reporter at another local station — and I knew of each other and had seen each other in person at media events in the past, we had never met until we both started working on Steve’s case. When I checked my phone in the parking lot, I had another text from Rudy. He said he was in the back of the Riverbend parking lot waiting for me. I walked to the back of the lot and there was Rudy with a beautiful bouquet of colorful flowers picked from his wife’s garden at the direction of Steve from his Row cell. Even in his last days, Steve was thinking of others. 

Steve would often express his gratitude, and when we spoke on the phone while he was on death watch, he told me how grateful he was for our team. As my awe and gratitude for the Federal Public Defenders’ office and Office of Post-Conviction Defender had only increased after taking this case, I assumed that much of Steve’s gratitude was for the amazing legal work and dedication of his long-time lawyers. I’m sure that was appreciated, but for Steve, he said the love he felt from his legal team was something for which he could never fully express the extent of his gratitude because he had never experienced that kind of love and care before. 

On Aug. 12, we received a one sentence note denying clemency. We were told simply that the governor had decided not to intervene in the execution. 

Minutes after the decision, my office phone rang. It was Steve. He couldn’t bear to express his disappointment, but instead resorted to jokes in typical Steve fashion. “Hi Steve,” I said, the disappointment obvious in my voice. “Well, I guess the wedding is off.” He was laughing. “You sound relieved,” I said. Steve quipped, “Yeah, kind of, I didn’t know what you’d really be like at home.” Finally, we were both laughing. 

Later on death watch, when he was finally able to process everything, Steve expressed to me his deep disappointment with the governor and how perplexed he was that the governor would not recognize his redemption or the trauma he had endured and his severe mental illness. But Steve also accepted his fate. More than anything, Steve was grateful for his faith and redemption. He was thankful to not have to suffer in prison any longer. 

On Aug. 15, 2019, 13 years and 2 months after I first visited death row to witness the execution of Sedley Alley, I visited Steve for the final time. As part of a protocol I will never understand, I went through checkpoints and extra levels of security. Steve was behind glass, shackled at the waist and on his wrists. The intention of death watch is to provide a prisoner with 24-hour suicide watch to prevent an inmate from taking his own life. It’s an odd precaution when it is really only preventing possible death for 72 hours until the State carries out an execution. 

I told Steve that I had been asked to speak at a vigil that night but had declined. He told me he wanted me to speak and let others know that he was more than an inmate. And, he had one request for the speech. I had to start off with one of his jokes. I reminded Steve that this was a prayer vigil and everyone else would be reading from Scripture. “You,” he said, “need to start with a joke and lighten the mood. It will be hilarious. Either people will laugh because it’s really funny or it will be really awkward for you, which will be hilarious too.” 

We said goodbye through the glass. I assured Steve that he and his story had a profound effect on me and that even though he would face execution, he would always be a part of the story of my life, and a part of the movement to end capital punishment. At the time of this writing, there were 51 people on death row in Tennessee according to the Dept of Correction (50 men at Unit 2 at Riverbend and one woman in the Women’s prison).

Because he feared intense pain following several botched executions via lethal injection, Steve had elected the electronic chair as his method of execution. The light of Steve West’s life went out when the State executed him at 7:27 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2019. 

Did it Make Any Difference?

As requested, that night at the vigil, I told Steve’s joke. “So, a circus couple meets with an adoption agent and says they want to adopt a child.” “A circus is no place for a child,” the adoption agent said. “We have a safe train to ride in, a nanny and a tutor on board,” replied the couple. The adoption agent gave in. “Do you have a preference on age?” “No, not at all,” the husband stated, “as long as he can fit inside a cannon.” Remarkably I did get laughs for one reason or another. 

Starting at 7:13 p.m., I, along with everyone at the vigil, by Steve’s request, recited the Lord’s Prayer and then sat silently until we received a text from colleagues at the prison telling us Steve had been pronounced dead.

When I got home, I found myself thinking again about Sedley Alley’s execution. Those same thoughts I had 13 years before were still there. Did Steve’s death give justice to the family of the victims? Did it cause another person to hesitate to commit a heinous crime? Did it make the citizens of this State any safer?

It is also hard to believe the citizens of Tennessee truly believe men like Steve West deserved to die a horrific death by execution. I can’t help but wonder if minds might be changed if others could know Steve as I got to know him.

* * *

This experience still haunts me. I think at times of Steve West and Sedley Alley. Ronnie Martin, Steve’s co-defendant, will be up for parole in about a decade. How is it just for the man who committed the murders to walk free, while the man who did not commit the murders is dead? Can we truly say the death penalty is being reserved for the worst of the worst? And remarkably, 13 years after his execution, Alley is back in the news. After the Innocence Project learned of a man charged with a very similar crime in the Midwest who was in the Millington, Tennessee, area at the time Sedley Alley was arrested, Alley’s daughter petitioned the State to test DNA at the crime scene to determine if her father was in fact, innocent. The court denied her request and at the time of this writing, it is currently on appeal. 

I don’t know if I will go to death row again, but many inmates remain. Each of them has a story, and like Steve said, each is more than an inmate.

AMY RAO MOHAN is an associate with Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison in Nashville, where she founded and heads its crisis management/media relations practice group.. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and earned her law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law, where she was a member of the Order of the Coif. Mohan served as a law clerk to the Hon. Gilbert S. Merritt, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and during law school, interned at the Tennessee Supreme Court.