Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

A Revolving Door of Death

Steven Hale lays bare the humanity of those condemned on Tennessee’s death row

When readers first meet condemned prisoner Stephen West in Death Row Welcomes You, we learn that he spent “the overwhelming majority of his life in the custody of people who wished him dead.” Born to an alcoholic in a mental institution, he was raped before age five, starved, beaten just for breathing, and was once tortured by being made to sit naked in the snow, author Steven Hale writes. His mother told a family member, “If I could kill him and get away with it, I would.”

Little wonder, then, that West went on to abuse alcohol and drugs himself, committing a heinous crime at age 23 while drunk and high. He was convicted along with his McDonald’s co-worker Ronnie Martin of raping 15-year-old Sheila Romines and then killing the girl and her mother, Wanda. The conviction came after his accomplice admitted to authorities that West was not involved in the murders. But “Steve’s jury never heard a tape of Ronnie admitting that he was the one who stabbed Wanda Romines and her daughter to death,” Hale writes. “The jury also never heard about the horrible and damaging abuse Steve suffered at the hands of his parents.” The kicker: West was sentenced to death while Martin was sentenced to life and will be eligible for parole in 2030.

West was also severely mentally ill. Despite pleas to Gov. Bill Lee, a man who campaigned on “his faith in a redemptive Christ,” as Hale puts it, West died in the electric chair on August 15, 2019.

West’s was one of several executions that Hale witnessed as a reporter for the Nashville Scene and The Appeal, a nonprofit news outlet focused on criminal justice reform. The experience took a toll. “I felt sad and angry and tired,” he writes of the night of West’s execution. “What had we just watched? A man who grew up poor, hungry, abused, and mentally ill, put to a violent death by low-paid prison employees while the state’s most powerful officials, Attorney General Herbert Slatery and Gov. Bill Lee, stayed far away.”

With vivid and deep reportage spanning several years, Death Row Welcomes You enlightens readers not only by conveying the “waking nightmare” that West and other death row inmates suffered before they made the worst decisions of their lives, but also by revealing the arbitrary nature of the death penalty. No logic can explain why West is dead and Martin will be eligible for parole in a few years. But as Hale notes, Tennessee is one of 27 states that allows capital punishment for people involved in a violent felony that resulted in death, “even if they didn’t kill anyone themselves.”

Hale tells the stories of these men alongside those of prison volunteers and reform advocates, some of whom have known the prisoners for decades and consider them friends. The man executed before West was Don Johnson, whose childhood was equally tragic. Convicted of killing his wife, Johnson served three decades on death row and became an ordained deacon in the church. Gov. Lee, as he did with West and two others, denied requests for clemency, and Johnson died by lethal injection on May 16, 2019. He decided to forgo a final meal and asked instead for his friends and supporters to feed the homeless.

Longtime prison reform advocate Joe Ingle, who features prominently in the book, joked to Hale that Bill Lee and Dylann Roof, the Charleston Mother Emanuel AME Church shooter who killed nine people, have something in common: They both kill ministers. “We’ve had two Christian governors and they’ve participated in killing more people in Tennessee than any governor since 1955,” Ingle told Hale, referring to Bill Haslam and Bill Lee. “I’m ready for an atheist governor.”

Ingle has been serving as a spiritual counselor to prisoners for half a century now. He has seen a lot. But even he had to take a break from his ministry during the state’s record two-year killing window. He dealt with his trauma after the 2018 execution of Ed Zagorski by taking better care of himself, going to Vanderbilt baseball games, and tending his blueberry bushes. He was communing with his fruit one day when Hale came by for a visit and noted how therapeutic the gardening would be for Ingle’s friends on death row. “There’s no reason they couldn’t do it,” Ingle replied. “It’s such a joke. These guys are not a danger to anybody. They’ve all been out there for thirty years. They’re totally rehabilitated. I mean, now we’re killing ’em. I mean, it’s insane.”

Death Row Welcomes You should be required reading for anyone interested in social justice, politics, and the law. Beyond humanizing the condemned and crediting the people who work tirelessly to help them, it exposes dark political truths about Tennessee’s most powerful men, chiefly current Gov. Bill Lee. He used his faith as a campaign prop, frequently touting his involvement with a Nashville prison ministry as he sought the state’s top job. That connection was emphasized so thoroughly, in fact, that the men on death row were actually “rooting” for him to win, Hale writes.

But in the end, Lee has presided over four state killings. Only the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s oversight shortcomings have stopped executions for now. “Don’t come to me with ‘I’m a Christian,’ and turn around and kill people in the electric chair or on the gurney,” Ingle told Hale. “It’s politics. It’s got nothing to do with justice or mercy or Jesus.”

A Revolving Door of Death

Liz Garrigan is the former editor of the Nashville Scene and now teaches in Bangkok, Thailand.