Tennessee executes convicted killer despite pleas of victims’ families, jurors and prison guards

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — By multiple accounts, Nicholas Todd Sutton was a changed man.

“I can confidently state that Nick Sutton is the most rehabilitated prisoner that I met working in maximum-security prisons over the course of 30 years,” former Tennessee Department of Correction Lt. Tony Eden stated in an affidavit included with Sutton’s Jan. 14 clemency petition.

Eden was one of three prison guards whose lives Sutton saved during a prison riot at the Tennessee State Prison in 1985. Sutton, who first went to prison in 1979, is also credited with saving two fellow inmates during that riot more than three decades ago.

Despite Eden’s statement, as well as the pleas of Sutton’s attorneys, the families of his victims and several jurors who convicted him, the state of Tennessee executed Sutton Thursday night at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. He died in the electric chair, which he chose over the state’s preferred method of execution, lethal injection.

In a terse, one-sentence statement Thursday morning, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee denied the longtime inmate’s bid for mercy.

“After careful consideration of Nicholas Sutton’s request for clemency and a thorough review of the case, I am upholding the sentence of the State of Tennessee and will not be intervening,” Lee said.

Two final appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court were denied Thursday night, The Associated Press reported.

In his final statement, Sutton thanked his wife, Reba Sutton, and friends and family who “tried so very hard to save (his) life,” according to the AP. He spoke of his faith and said Jesus had “fixed him” during his time in prison.

“I’m just grateful to be a servant of God, and I’m looking forward to being in his presence,” Sutton said.

Sutton was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m., the AP reported.

A written last statement provided by Sutton’s attorneys spoke of how the friends Sutton had made had enriched his life.

“They have reached out to me and pulled me up and I am grateful for that,” Sutton’s statement said. “I have had the privilege of being married to the finest woman, who is a great servant to God. Without her, I would not have made the progress that I have made.

“I hope I do a much better job in the next life than I did in this one. If I could leave one thing with all of you, it is, don’t ever give up on the ability of Jesus Christ to fix someone or a problem. He can fix anything. Don’t ever underestimate his ability. He has made my life meaningful and fruitful through my relationships with family and friends.

“So, even in my death, I am coming out a winner. God has provided it all to me.”

Sutton was 58 years old, the same age his grandmother was in December 1979 when authorities said he knocked her unconscious with firewood at their Morristown home, wrapped her in a blanket and trash bags, chained her to a cinder block and threw her into the Nolichucky River to drown. According to the Tennessean, Dorothy Sutton, who had adopted her grandson after his father committed suicide, was a retired schoolteacher.

It was not Dorothy Sutton’s death, or either of two additional murders a then-18-year-old Nick Sutton confessed to, that put him on death row. His death sentence did not come about until years later when he was convicted of stabbing to death Carl Estep, a convicted child rapist with whom he was serving time.

None of Sutton’s or Estep’s family members witnessed the execution, the AP reported. A Tennessee Department of Corrections spokeswoman said Sutton had asked his loved ones not to attend.

The sister of one of Sutton’s earlier victims, 19-year-old John Large, was at the prison, however. Following Sutton’s death, a statement from Amy Large Cook was read to the reporters present.

“John was denied the opportunity to live a full life with a family of his own,” Cook’s statement read. “My children were denied meeting a wonderful man who would have spoiled them rotten and loved them with all his heart. He suffered a terrible and horrific death, and for that, I will never forgive Mr. Sutton.”

Happy Birthday in heaven to my big brother John! 🇺🇸🎉😢😘

Posted by Amy Large Cook on Monday, July 4, 2016

Cook told WBIR in Knoxville that she was in sixth grade when Sutton, who spent a lot of time at her family’s home, killed her brother. Large, who was born on the Fourth of July, had been married less than a month when he was slain.

According to the AP, Sutton was the fifth Tennessee death row inmate to choose the electric chair in just over a year. Expert witnesses have testified in court that midazolam, one part of the three-drug cocktail Tennessee uses to execute its inmates, does not prevent the feeling of pain.

The cocktail used in Tennessee’s executions would cause inmates to experience the sensation of drowning, of suffocating and of suffering chemical burns, the AP reported last month.

Four brutal killings

Sutton was initially sentenced to life in prison for three murders: the killing of his grandmother and the murders of Large, a high school friend, and another man, 46-year-old Charles Almon III. The Tennessean reported that Sutton first drew suspicion after showing up at his family’s annual Christmas Eve dinner with scratches on his face, a load of presents his grandmother had wrapped -- but no Dorothy Sutton.

His aunts called police after their mother failed to turn up by Christmas Day. Dorothy Sutton’s body was pulled from the river four days later.

The newspaper reported that authorities believed Nick Sutton grew angry at his grandmother, who had a habit of giving him expensive gifts, when she finally denied him cash. That was not the story Sutton told at his murder trial, however.

He testified at trial that he arrived home Dec. 22, 1979, to find his grandmother lying on the living room floor, covered with blood. He claimed he’d shot Almon in self-defense.

Sutton testified that he, Large and Almon had pooled their cash to buy $75,000 worth of cocaine but that Large had vanished with the money and Almon began demanding payment from Sutton.

“He went through quite a story, which did not turn out to be true at all,” former Hamblen County Sheriff’s Office investigator Martin Coffey, who worked the case, told the Tennessean last month.

Jurors shared investigators’ doubts about Sutton’s story and convicted him of first-degree murder in his grandmother’s death.

The bodies of Large, who had gone missing about four months before Dorothy Sutton’s death, and Almon remained missing until after Nick Sutton’s murder trial, when the teen struck a deal with authorities to avoid the death penalty, the Tennessean said. In return for life in prison, he led detectives to Large’s body, which he had buried on land his aunt owned in Waterville, North Carolina.

Sutton told investigators he’d killed Large by ramming a tobacco stick through his mouth and into his skull.

Almon, who had been shot to death, was found only when detectives investigating an unrelated murder in neighboring Cocke County accidentally stumbled upon his remains in a flooded rock quarry, according to the Tennessean.

Sutton pleaded guilty in 1981 to killing Almon and Large at his aunt’s cabin in North Carolina and was sentenced to two more life sentences.

The teen initially claimed to have killed two other people but authorities determined he was lying after Sutton took them on multiple fruitless searches for remains. No evidence of other killings was ever found.

On Jan. 15, 1985, Estep, a fellow inmate at Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility, was stabbed 38 times in his cell. Sutton, who had a dispute with Estep over drugs, and two other inmates were charged with the slaying.

The Tennessean reported that Estep had told Sutton he had a knife and would kill him. A search of Estep’s cell after his death turned up three homemade knives.

One of the other inmates charged in the killing was acquitted, the newspaper reported. The third man received a life sentence and is now free on parole.

Sutton, whose history of violence was taken into account at sentencing, was sent to death row.

‘From a life-taker to a life-saver’

Sutton’s appellate legal team, which was headed by former federal Judge Kevin Sharp, argued that the man who was facing the electric chair was far from the abuse-scarred, drug-addicted teen who went on a killing spree over 40 years ago.

His wife, Reba Sutton, wrote that she had watched her husband, over the past three decades, overcome the pain of his childhood and repent for his mistakes. She said he cared for everyone and was “constantly looking for opportunities to serve others.”

“Nick has been my rock through some of the most difficult times in my life, including the deaths of my mother and brother. Nick is my best friend and the highlight of every day,” she wrote. “I cannot imagine life without him and would ask that you grant him the opportunity to continue to teach love, hope, and compassion to men across the state who have taken a wrong turn in life.”

Sutton’s attorneys credited the secure, stable environment of death row with helping him to overcome his addiction, which they said began as an adolescent suffering a childhood of abuse at the hands of his violent, mentally ill father.

“Nick’s mother, Edna Fay O’Neill, abandoned Nick and his father, Pete, before Nick’s first birthday,” Sutton’s cousin, Lowell Sutton, wrote. “Pete battled severe mental illness and struggled with drug addiction throughout his life and was frequently in and out of mental institutions and jail. Pete could not hold a job and was unable to take care of himself, much less raise Nick.

“Pete’s mistreatment of Nick broke my heart. He made Nick’s life a living hell.”

Nick Sutton began using drugs at age 12, often with his father, his attorneys wrote. It was not until he was sent to death row that the cycle was broken.

“For the first time since adolescence, he was able to get sober and, through years of hard work and perseverance, become the man he is today,” his attorneys wrote. “Nick is a truly reformed inmate who, while on death row, has dedicated his life to improving himself, to helping others and to counseling people through the hardships and traumas life has dealt them.”

They pointed out that Sutton offered no justification for his crimes and was “profoundly remorseful” for his actions prior to prison. They also pointed to his behavior since being sent to death row as a reason to commute his sentence.

“Nick Sutton has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver. Five Tennesseans, including three prison staff members, owe their lives to him,” the letter to Lee stated.

Read Nick Sutton’s clemency letter below.

The attorneys were joined in their clemency request by Rosemary Estep Hall, the eldest daughter of the man whose murder put Sutton on death row.

“It breaks my heart that Mr. Sutton has lost so much of his life on death row for killing my father,” Hall wrote.

Sutton’s appeal for clemency was also supported by the families of two of his initial victims, his grandmother and Almon.

Almon’s great-niece, who was born after he was slain, asked the governor to spare Sutton’s life because his death would further dishonor her uncle’s memory. She asked the state to not add “violence on top of violence.”

Sutton’s family also begged for his life.

“Nick’s own family was devastated when Nick murdered Dorothy Sutton in 1979, but now asks that you commute Nick’s death sentence in light of his profound transformation,” the letter stated. “Nick’s cousin, Lowell Sutton, believes ‘there is no question that Nick has transformed his life in prison. He has become a mentor and leader among his peers, is beloved and trusted by prison staff, and is an asset to the prison and its population.’”

Lowell Sutton wrote that the family forgave his cousin and did not want to see him put to death.

“Nick’s execution will only cause more pain and hurt for our family,” he wrote. “Please spare us that.”

Five of the jurors who sentenced Sutton to death, along with an alternate juror, also signed on to the clemency request. The jurors, moved by his transformation, believed that his life was worth saving, the letter stated.

A total of seven correctional officers who knew Sutton agreed.

“Nick risked his own safety on three separate occasions to protect correction staff from violence by other inmates,” the clemency letter to Lee stated. “It is the opinion of James E. Aiken, a former correction commissioner, prison warden, and a prison adaptation expert who met with Nick and reviewed his incarceration history that, ‘Mr. Sutton saved the lives of these three (prison staff members).’ Nick has also saved the lives of two other inmates.

“These actions demonstrate Nick’s true belief in the value of human life.”

Eden, the former prison guard whose life was saved during the 1985 prison riot, wrote in his affidavit that he was taken hostage by a group of five inmates armed with knives and other weapons.

“Nick and another inmate confronted them, physically removed me from the situation and escorted me to the safety of the trap gate in another building,” Eden wrote. “I firmly believe that the inmates who tried to take me hostage intended to seriously harm, if not kill me. Nick risked his safety and well-being in order to save me from possible death. I owe my life to Nick Sutton.”

Eden wrote that if Sutton were released from prison, he would welcome him into his home and as his neighbor.

Another former guard, Cheryl Donaldson, wrote about slipping, falling and striking her head on the floor in 1994 while walking through Riverbend Maximum, where she supervised the death row unit. She said no other staff members witnessed her fall and she felt that many inmates would have taken the opportunity to harm her while she was vulnerable.

“Nick, however, did exactly the opposite,” Donaldson wrote. “He sprang into action, helped me to my feet, retrieved my keys and radio and alerted staff to come to my assistance. This was typical of Nick, who always puts others before himself and is willing to help anyone in need.”

That care extended to his fellow inmates, who Sutton often aided when their health failed, according to the clemency letter. Joyce House, the mother of exonerated death row inmate Paul House, wrote that Sutton helped her son after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while in prison.

Sutton, upset when Paul House was denied a wheelchair, began carrying him around the prison, helped him shower and keep himself clean and consoled him when he would cry over his situation.

“As my son often told me, Nick is the only reason Paul is alive today,” Joyce House wrote. “As a mother, it was so difficult not to be able to care for my son. I owe so much to Nick for providing Paul with the care that I was unable to give him.”

Sutton’s attorneys also argued in his clemency letter that prosecutors had initially offered their client a life sentence -- though it was one they said he could not take. They wrote that the deal was available only if his co-defendant, Charles Freeman, pleaded guilty to Estep’s murder and accepted a sentence of 30 to 40 years in prison.

“Nick did not accept the offer because Mr. Freeman was minimally involved in Mr. Estep’s death,” the letter said. “Nick also maintained -- and continues to maintain -- that his other co-defendant, Thomas Street, is innocent. Despite the life offer and Nick’s willingness to accept the offer for himself, the State sought and obtained a death sentence at trial.

“It is arbitrary and capricious that Nick received a death sentence rather than life due to his concern that his co-defendant not be forced into accepting an unjust plea. By offering Nick a life sentence prior to trial, the prosecution agreed that Nick is not the ‘worst of the worst,’ that he could be housed safely in prison for life, and that such a sentence served the interest of justice.”

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