Before more than 1,700 volts of electricity coursed through Nicky Sutton’s body Thursday night, convulsively discharging life, Sutton stoically expressed his Christian faith, alluded to his next life – one that was fast approaching – and recognized those who had not forsaken him during his 40-plus years in prison.
“I would like to thank my wife for being such a good witness to the Lord for me,” Sutton said while strapped in the electric chair at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. “Don’t ever give up on the power of Jesus Christ to take impossible situations and correct them. He can fix something that’s broken. He fixed me.”
Following the execution, his attorney, Steve Ferrell, a Knoxville-based assistant U.S. attorney who specializes in death-penalty cases, read a statement from Sutton that covered much of the same ground.
“I hope I do a much better job in the next life than I did in this one … (Jesus) 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,” Ferrell quoted Sutton as saying.
Sutton’s statements did not include any expression of remorse for his crimes.
He did not apologize for bludgeoning his grandmother, Dorothy Sutton, before wrapping her body in blankets and trash bags, weighting the bundle with a chain and concrete block and discarding her in the Nolichucky River, where she drowned just prior to Christmas 1979.
He expressed no regret for cutting short the life of his high school friend, John Large, before either of them reached 20. Also unmentioned were Knoxville businessman and reputed cocaine dealer Charles Almon and Carl Estep, a child molester who Sutton knifed to death at Brushy Mountain State in 1985 over a bag of weed. Estep’s killing is the one that got Sutton the death penalty.
One jolt of electricity, a pause, and then another. Nicholas Todd Sutton was pronounced dead at 8:27 p.m. EST. He was 58, the same age as his grandmother when he murdered her more than four decades ago.
The customs of death
Sutton’s execution Thursday night was a highly ritualized theatre macabre.
Tennessee Department of Corrections officials escorted witnesses to two darkened rooms, one for Estep’s family members and the other for Riverbend’s spiritual adviser, prosecution and defense attorneys and seven media representatives.
Sutton requested his family and friends not view the execution, and they complied with that final wish.
After the witnesses took their seats in three rows of cushioned chairs, the lights went down and the primary source of illumination in the room was the ribbons of light entering around the perimeter of the curtain-like drape that separates the death chamber from the witnesses.
A death attendant conducted a sound check. The sounds of metal clanking against metal could be heard as Sutton was strapped into the electric chair, along with other backstage noise, including what appeared to be the hissing of escaping compressed air.
Several minutes passed before. the curtain lifted.
Sutton was restrained in the electric chair with a six-point harness that connected to a metal hub in the center of his chest. His hands were strapped to the sturdy wooden chair and his legs immobilized with heavy metal shackles.
Sutton was seated no more than 12 feet from the witnesses, observers he could see through the four rectangular windows.
Sutton, who had been shaved of his hair, beard and eyebrows was almost unrecognizable.
The heavy facial hair had masked sagging jowls. Sutton’s thick salt-and-pepper mane and his thick eyebrows had disguised the eyes of an old man.
He appeared resolute, not fearful, but depleted. The condemned man said his peace and the death ritual continued.
One of the two corrections officers flanking Sutton placed a rolled white towel behind his neck. Its purpose became clear soon enough.
A death attendant dipped an oversized sponge into salt water and placed it onto Sutton’s head, stinging his eyes and causing him to blink.
A bowl-shaped electrode was placed atop Sutton’s head with a chin strap. The death attendant poured salt water onto the sponges inside his leg shackles, and a dark gray veil was placed over his face.
The other corrections officer attached a high-voltage electric cable to the business end of the electric chair.
Despite a thick black belt around his waist, when the first volt of electricity arrived, Sutton convulsed off the heavy wooden chair.
His body lifted.
His fists clenched in short-lived agony, and the tendons in his elbows protruded like taught rigging.
The voltage subsided and Sutton sank back into the chair.
Several second passed, and the sound of electric current again filled the witness room, but this time Sutton didn’t move.
He remained in public view for about five minutes before the official death pronouncement. The curtain fell and the lights came on. Nicholas Todd Sutton was dead.
Before and after
The death ritual began long before Sutton was lashed to the electric chair.
Sutton took his last communion at 3:30 p.m., Welch’s grape juice and an unleavened wafer, according to Dorinda Carter, TDOC spokeswoman.
Twenty-seven minutes later, Sutton ate his last meal, take-out fried pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy and pie. Inmates can choose whatever they want as long as the tab comes to less than $25. Inmate movement inside the prison comes to a halt. The inmates are locked down in their cells and remain there for 72 hours after Sutton is pronounced dead, according to TDOC officials.
For purposes of the execution and TDOC policy the Dorothy Sutton and Almon and John Large homicides are essentially footnotes.
Sutton was sentenced to life without parole for the first-degree murders of his grandmother, Almon and Large.
He was sentenced to death for butchering Estep, a convicted child molester from Knoxville, in prison.
For that reason, only Estep’s family members were allowed to witness the execution in a room apart from the attorneys, clergy TDOC officials and media representatives.
The Associated Press reported Sutton’s supporters, including several family members of his victims and prison workers, had recently asked Gov. Bill Lee to commute the sentence, saying Sutton had rehabilitated himself in prison and was not the same person who first entered prison 40 years ago. His supporters included two prison workers who credited Sutton with saving their lives.
But Lee said Wednesday that he would not intervene to stop the execution. And two last-ditch appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court were denied Thursday evening. The justices, in an emailed statement, gave no explanation for their decision.
Sutton had not indicated why he chose electrocution — an option for inmates whose crimes were committed before the state adopted lethal injection as its preferred execution method — but other inmates have said they thought the electric chair would be quicker and less painful.
Large’s sister, Hamblen County resident Amy Large Cook, knew she would have to remain outside the witness rooms, but she made the 235-mile trip to the Nashville prison in memory and out of respect for her brother. Cook, who was 10 years old when her brother was beaten to death, released a statement, which was read at a press conference following the execution.
“John was denied the opportunity to live a full life with a family of his own,” Cook said through a spokesperson. “He suffered a terrible and horrific death, and for that I will never forgive Mr. Sutton.”