NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee executed death row inmate Stephen Michael West on Thursday night, marking the third time the state has used the electric chair in less than a year.
He was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m. CDT, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. He was 56.
West was sentenced to death for the 1986 stabbing deaths of Wanda Romines, 51, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila Romines, in their East Tennessee home. He also was convicted of raping Sheila.
Experts said the women had been tortured in front of one another before they died.
West was the 137th person put to death in Tennessee since 1916, and the fifth inmate executed since August 2018.
West’s legal team had pleaded to spare his life in the weeks before the execution. They said his co-defendant Ronnie Martin had committed the murders while West stood by, hobbled by a history of childhood abuse and untreated mental illnesses.
Martin was 17 when the murders took place. He remains in an East Tennessee prison and will be eligible for parole in 2030. Because he was a minor at the time of the crime, Martin was not eligible for the death penalty.
In a clemency application sent to Gov. Bill Lee, West’s lawyers said he had reformed himself after receiving mental health treatment in prison. They stressed his Christian faith and his work with other inmates behind bars.
Days before the execution, Lee said he would not intervene. Within hours, West asked to die by electrocution instead of lethal injection, the state’s default execution method.
He was the third inmate to make that choice since Tennessee resumed executions a year ago. Each inmate who chose the electric chair had participated in lawsuits challenging Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.
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More than 30 people gathered outside Riverbend Maximum Security Institute in Nashville to protest West’s execution.
Kevin Riggs, senior pastor at Franklin Community Church, said executing people doesn’t change anything. When he talked to West last week, Riggs said he was hopeful the governor would grant clemency.
“You’re not executing the same person who did the crime,” he said. “We all change. Stephen was remorseful.”
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Dan Mann and his wife have visited death row inmates weekly for years. At about 7 p.m., as the execution was set to begin, he said this was “one of the most somber vigils I’ve attended.”
“To go and meet with these guys is life changing,” he said. “I’m not the same man I was 10 years ago.”
‘It was a slaughterhouse,’ friend of victims recount
West was born in a mental institution in 1962.
His mother, Wanda West, had tried to kill herself while she was pregnant by breathing in carbon monoxide from a gas oven. He was named by the aunt who came to pick him up.
According to the 28-page clemency petition compiled by his lawyers, his childhood was marred by near-constant physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his parents. The attorneys argued that abuse caused or exacerbated a series of severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
They said those illnesses that left him frozen in the face of the carnage on the morning of March 17, 1986, when Wanda and Sheila Romines were stabbed to death.
West and Martin have blamed each other for the crime. While the details may never be known, the blood-soaked crime scene suggested horror.
“It was a slaughterhouse,” said Eddie Campbell, a Romines family friend.
West and Martin had been drinking beer and roaming around the Big Ridge area early that morning after they clocked out of work at the McDonald’s in what’s now Rocky Top. West told his pregnant wife he was going fishing.
As they drove around in Martin’s mother’s car, Martin suggested they go “get some sex.”
West was 23, a shift supervisor at the McDonald’s who’d spent three years in the U.S. Army. Martin was 17, short and curly-headed with a face that made him look even younger. They’d known each other barely two weeks.
The pair met a friend of Martin’s around 3 a.m. who loaned Martin a butcher knife. As Jack Romines left his Union County home two hours later, with his wife and daughter still inside, Martin and West walked up to the front door.
Prosecutor William Paul Phillips said it was never clear how long the brutal crime lasted.
Jurors found West guilty of murder and rape after less than two hours of deliberation. They took even less time to settle on the death sentence – about 90 minutes.
Contributing: Nolan Ryan and Holly Meyer; follow Adam Tamburin on Twitter @tamburintweets.
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