Former Judge: Latest Death Row Case is ‘Different Than Any Other You’ve Heard’

Posted February 14th, 2020.

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Former federal judge Kevin Sharp has never represented a death row inmate as an attorney.

Nicholas Todd Sutton’s story convinced him to change that.

Current and former prison officers have lined up to support Sutton as his Feb. 20 execution date approaches. They say he has become a model inmate, one who stepped into dangerous situations and saved multiple lives behind bars.

Their contributions make Sutton’s case “so much different than any other you’ve heard,” Sharp said. That’s why he has taken a leading role in the quest to save Sutton’s life.

“It’s not the inmate saying, ‘I’m a changed man.’ It’s the people who are there day in and day out,” Sharp said. “For these folks to come out and say what they said is highly unusual.”

Sharp, a President Barack Obama appointee who left the bench in 2017, now works at Sanford Heisler Sharp. He is on Sutton’s clemency team, which has asked Gov. Bill Lee to move Sutton off death row and allow him to serve life without parole instead.

Lee’s office won’t comment on pending clemency requests. Three Tennessee inmates have been executed since Lee took office in 2019. The governor has not stopped any executions.

Sutton, 58, was convicted of killing four people, including his grandmother Dorothy Sutton, his high school friend John Large and Charles Almon. He was sentenced to death for his involvement in the stabbing and killing of fellow inmate Carl Estep in 1985.

But Sharp said he hoped stories from prison officers would show Sutton had transformed there, removed from drugs that had been a corrupting influence for much of his life.

Sharp said Sutton wept during one of their meetings at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

“This is a guy who really is sorry and almost can’t believe that he was that guy who is capable of doing those things.”

Now, Sharp said, “he is someone who makes this place safer.”

Accounts of seven current and former officers are included in the clemency application.

Former correction officer Tony Eden said he was surrounded by armed inmates during a 1985 prison riot when Sutton pulled him from the fray.

“Nick risked his safety and well-being in order to save me from possible death,” Eden wrote in a message shared with Lee. “I owe my life to Nick Sutton.”

Former Hamblen County jailer Howard Ferrell was surrounded by dozens of inmates in 1979. Just as one of them was about to hit him from behind with a broom handle, Sutton intervened and pinned the other inmate to the ground.

Sutton’s closest allies make no excuses for his crimes. But they say he has been reshaped by the prisons he’s called home for most of his life.

He’s become so trusted that prison officials have allowed Sutton to serve as “maintenance man,” carrying tools that could double as lethal weapons in the wrong hands.

The Rev. Amy Howe of Memphis, a retired Presbyterian Church minister, has been visiting Sutton for 14 years.

She said Sutton is an example of the system working as intended.

“The irony here is that you’ve taken a man who was a drug-addicted, violent teenager, and through the prison system, Tennessee really changed him and made him a different person,” Howe said. “In three weeks, we’re going to kill him. The irony is hard for me to believe. … The prison will not be better off without him. I think it will be worse off.”

Sharp doubted he’d represent another death row inmate. The former judge said the officers’ testimonials show how unique Sutton has become.

“We need people like him in there,” Sharp said. “I hope they see it the way that I do.”

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