NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Attorneys for Tennessee death row inmate Edmund Zagorski on Wednesday asked a federal court to force the state to use the electric chair to execute him, rather than lethal injection. The court battle over his Thursday execution played out over a solemn background in which prison staff and volunteers said the death of the well liked inmate will leave an impact.
Jurors sentenced Zagorski to death in 1984 after finding him guilty of shooting John Dotson and Jimmy Porter, then slitting their throats in Robertson County in April 1983. The victims had planned to buy marijuana from Zagorski. Prosecutors said Zagorski never had any marijuana but set the men up to rob them then killed them to cover it up.
Ahead of his Thursday execution date, Zagorski’s attorneys have challenged the constitutionality of Tennessee’s current three-drug lethal injection protocol and are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In the meantime, Zagorski requested on Monday that he be executed by electric chair. His attorney, Kelley Henry, said Zagorski believes it will be quicker and less painful. The state has denied the request.
If Zagorski’s execution goes forward as scheduled by whichever method, his death will affect more than those friends on the outside from before his 34-year incarceration.
Zagorski’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Joe Ingle, says Zagorski is liked in the prison, where he is seen and helpful and polite, and even some of the jurors who sentenced Zagorski to die say his execution will be tough on them.
William Clay served as the jury foreman back in 1984. He said potential jurors were all asked if they believed in the death penalty and only those who did were selected for the jury.
“We all said yes. But once it is there in front of you, the realization that you’re talking about a human life — it kind of sets in on you,” Clay said in an interview Tuesday. “Back in the jury room some people were crying.”
Years later in his work for the state of Tennessee, Clay met two former Department of Correction workers who knew Zagorski and told Clay the inmate “wasn’t a bad guy,” Clay said. “I’ve come to think that over a period of time people change. We all change.”
According to Zagorski’s clemency petition to the governor, he has turned his life around in prison, becoming an exemplary inmate without a single disciplinary infraction in his 34 years on death row. That wasn’t enough to influence Gov. Bill Haslam, who has said he won’t intervene to stop the execution.
The petition contains the declarations from many former prison staffers who have known Zagorski for years. They include Earline Armstrong whose husband also worked at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution and considered Zagorski his best friend.
Corinthia Gray, who worked at Riverbend for 17 years said of Zagorski in her declaration, “He was such a good guy. I would feel bad if he was executed.”
Juror Michael Poole said he wishes there had been an option of life without parole, but he and other jurors did their best to uphold their oath and render justice.
“There were tears shed in the courtroom by the families of the two men who were murdered,” he said. “We had to keep the focus on what our role was.”
Lawrence Ray Whitley, district attorney who prosecuted Zagorski, wrote to Haslam on Sept. 18 urging the governor not to grant clemency. He described Zagorski’s crime in gruesome detail and wrote, “there is no issue of guilt, no question of mental competence and no issue of inadequate legal representation.”
Ingle said he will be with Zagorski on Thursday but won’t witness his death, saying, “I’m not going to watch my friend get executed.”
Contemplating the upcoming execution, jury foreman Clay said, “I guess Friday will come and you’ll see the world really hasn’t changed. You’ll just be a little bit sad.”