Posted January 14th, 2020.
Adam Tamburin, Nashville Tennessean
Nicholas Todd Sutton does not dispute he killed four people, a series of brutal crimes that put him in prison and then on death row.
But his lawyers say a history of saving lives behind bars, including prison guards who were being attacked by other inmates, shows Sutton has grown and that he deserves mercy.
Prison employees’ accounts of Sutton’s altruism form the backbone of his long-shot effort to convince Gov. Bill Lee to stop his execution, which is scheduled for Feb. 20.
Sutton’s legal team, led by former federal Judge Kevin Sharp, filed their clemency petition with the governor Tuesday.
Lee has declined to intervene in the three other executions that have taken place since he took office in 2019.
Sutton convicted of killing 4 people, including grandmother, friend
Sutton, 58, has been convicted of killing four people, including his grandmother Dorothy Sutton, who raised him as a son. Investigators said he knocked the retired schoolteacher unconscious in 1979 and dropped her into the icy waters of the Nolichucky River in Hamblen County, where she drowned.
After his conviction, he led detectives to his aunt’s property in Waterville, North Carolina, where he had beaten, killed and buried his high school friend John Large, who hadn’t been seen since August 1979.
Detectives also linked him with the death of Charles Almon, 46. Almon’s body was pulled from the waters of a rock quarry. Sutton admitted to shooting Almon at his aunt’s North Carolina property before disposing of the body in the quarry.
But it was Sutton’s involvement with stabbing and killing fellow inmate Carl Estep that ultimately put him on death row.
Estep, a convicted child rapist from Knoxville, was stabbed more than three dozen times Jan. 5, 1985, in a cell at Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Morgan County.
Sutton’s attorneys did not excuse his violent acts, but they pointed to a series of mitigating factors.
Inadequate trial representation had blunted Sutton’s opportunities to avoid the death penalty, they said. They added “pervasive childhood trauma” had warped his brain.
His father “was a violent, abusive, and unstable man who suffered from severe mental illness, struggled with substance abuse, and was repeatedly institutionalized,” the application read.
Sutton started taking illicit drugs with his father by 12, his lawyers wrote, beginning a lifelong addiction.
Lawyers say Sutton’s transformation, rooted in Christian faith, makes him a force for good
Sutton’s lawyers say he has transformed during his decades behind bars.
“Nick Sutton has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver,” his legal team wrote in their 29-page clemency application.
The application cites the accounts of three prison staffers who say Sutton stepped in to save their lives when he didn’t have to, twice stepping between staff and angry inmates to diffuse potentially lethal conflicts.
Lawyers said members of the Estep, Sutton and Almon families supported their quest for mercy.
And they said Sutton had taken many steps to better himself during 34 years on death row. He confronted his addiction to drugs, took classes, embraced Christianity and became a mentor and leader at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, according to the clemency petition.
“Through Nick’s evolving faith and his desire to grow and constantly better himself, he has become living proof of the possibility of redemption and a person’s ability to change,” the lawyers wrote.
“While Nick Sutton offers no justification for his crimes, he asks that you let him live,” the petition reads. “He asks that you recognize his remorse, rehabilitation, and transformation while offering no excuses for the murder of Carl Estep and for taking the lives of others.”
Sharp, Sutton’s attorney, said in a statement that the inmate’s progress was “nothing short of extraordinary.”
“We should trust the correction professionals who have seen how Mr. Sutton behaves and are taking the highly unusual step of personally advocating for clemency in his case,” Sharp said. “Their support demonstrates that justice and the public good would be best served through granting Nick executive clemency.”
Travis Dorman contributed to this report.