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David Earl Miller by executed by electric chair on Dec 6, 2018
Ayrika L Whitney, The Tennessean

Death row inmate David Earl Miller was pronounced dead at 7:25 p.m. CST on Thursday after Tennessee prison officials electrocuted him with the electric chair. He was 61.

He is the third person executed this year and was the longest-serving inmate on Tennessee’s death row. 

Miller was sentenced to death for the May 1981 murder of 23-year-old Lee Standifer of Knoxville, who was mentally disabled. 

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he U.S. Supreme Court and Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday declined to intervene and stop the scheduled execution. 

The winter sky above Riverbend Maximum Security Institution turned dark early with threats of rain later in the evening. Mounted horse patrols circled the prison parking lot as a small number of people on both sides of the death penalty debate stood in the cold.

Media witnesses entered the building and waited in front of a large window that looked into the execution chamber where, on the other side of the glass, Miller sat pinned in the electric chair. 

No one from Standifer’s family came to witness the death.

With no emotion in his voice, Miller said his last words but at first could not be understood. The warden asked to him to repeat himself.

With “Beats being on death row,” the execution began. 

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An interview with retired KPD police investigator Jim Winston about Lee Standifer’s murder Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.
Caitie McMekin, Knoxville News Sentinel

The execution

An expressionless Miller stared ahead as he was held down by buckles and straps. His cream colored pants were rolled up and electrodes were fastened to his feet.

His fingernails and toenails were untrimmed. Cuts were seen on his legs.

Prison staff placed a large wet sponge soaked in saline solution and a metal helmet on his shaved head. Solution dripped down his face and chest.

One of the prison staff wiped Miller’s face with a towel. 

A black shroud was placed over his head. 

The warden gave the signal to proceed. 

At 7:16, the first jolt of 1,750 volts of electricity was sent through Miller’s body.  Witnesses could see him stiffen and his upper body raise up on the chair.

It was quiet. He made no sound but his hands were in fists and his pinkies stuck out over the arm rest of the seat.

After he lowered on the chair, he wasn’t seen moving again. 

A second jolt was administered for 15 seconds.  

The doctor overseeing the death checked on Miller’s vitals. 

He was dead. The curtain came down. 

“Miller cleared” came over the speakers. 

The execution occurred similarly to Edmund Zagorski’s electrocution a month prior. Down to the clenched fists, strained pinkies and no signs of breathing after the first jolt of electricity.

Media spoke with Standifer’s mother on the phone. She said her daughter lived a life of love, of passion and ultimately her family didn’t want Miller to ever be out on the street again. 

After Miller’s death, his attorney Stephen Kissinger spokes at a press conference. He said Miller “cared deeply” for Sandifer. 

“…she would be alive today if it weren’t for a sadistic stepfather and a mother who violated every trust that a son should have,” Kissinger said. “…Maybe what I should be doing is ask you all that question. What is it we did here today?”

Kissinger said Miller was “a friend, a father and a grandfather.” During their last conversations, Miller said he had the opportunity he had to make “just a handful of close friends.” 

“He mentioned Nick, and Gary and Leonard. And if those guys get a chance to hear this, I want them to know that they were with him until the end,” Kissinger said. 

“In the state of Tennessee, we reserve the ultimate and irrevocable penalty of death only for the most heinous of crimes. Lee Standifer was a special needs woman living a full and productive life,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said in a statement.

“That life was taken in a cruel, savage and torturous fashion by the individual put to death tonight. Justice, long delayed, has now been served. It is my solemn hope the family of Lee Standifer can now be at peace.”

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he realized he was “a caught rat.” 

Miller’s attorneys have argued he lashed out in a burst of psychotic fury, driven by years of pent-up anger from a lifetime of abuse. 

Miller was born in July 1957 near Toledo, Ohio. He was the product of a one-night stand in a bar. His mother drank throughout her pregnancy and was later diagnosed with brain damage from exposure to toxic fumes at her job in a plastics plant. 

He was 10 months old when his mother got remarried to an alcoholic who routinely beat him with boards, slammed him into walls and dragged him around the house by the hair, according to court records.

Miller told social workers he had his first sexual experiences when abused by a female cousin at age 5, by a friend of his grandfather’s at age 12 and by his drunken mother at age 15.  His family disputes this account.

Miller tried to hang himself at age 6 and began drinking, smoking marijuana and huffing gasoline daily by age 10. By age 13, he’d landed in a state reform school where counselors regularly whipped boys with rubber hoses and turned a blind eye to sexual molestation.

He later said he couldn’t remember a single person from his early years ever telling him they loved him.

“Being beaten by his stepfather is the earliest memory that Mr. Miller can recall, and beatings are the rhythm of his childhood,” a clinical psychologist wrote after a court-ordered examination. “Mr. Miller, from a very early age, harbored a simmering rage.”

Miller joined the Marine Corps in 1974 at 17 and made it through boot camp but deserted when he learned he wouldn’t be sent overseas to fight in Vietnam. He came home to Ohio, got a girlfriend pregnant, and left again when she chose to marry another man and raise their child, a daughter, without him.

He bounced between Ohio and Texas, working odd jobs as a welder and bartender. He was hitchhiking through East Tennessee when a car driven by the Rev. Benjamin Calvin Thomas stopped on the shoulder of Interstate 75.

He invited Miller to stay at his home. 

Twice officers arrested Miller on charges of rape. Each time the women failed to press charges, saying they were scared of Miller, and the charge was dismissed.

Defense lawyers argued Miller was venting the rage he still harbored at his mother. Prosecutors said he was working up the nerve for the crime that followed.

On a May day downtown in 1981, he met Lee Standifer

Standifer, born with mild brain damage, was learning to live on her own at age 23. She worked at a food-processing plant, stayed in a room at the YWCA on Clinch Avenue and called home every day to talk to her mother.

Just before her death, she told her mother she felt like she’d just started to live.

The next to die

The state’s highest court set new execution dates in 2019 and 2020 for six men sentenced to death in Tennessee.

All of the men had prior execution dates set by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Those plans were temporarily halted as a result of pending legal challenges to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol. Those challenges, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, ultimately failed. 

► May 16, 2019, for Donnie Edward Johnson, who was convicted in 1985 of killing his wife, Connie Johnson, in Benton County.  Johnson suffocated his wife in 1984 by stuffing a plastic garbage bag into her mouth.

►  Aug. 15, 2019, for Stephen Michael West, convicted in 1986 for the fatal stabbings of a mother and daughter, Wanda Romines, 51, and Sheila Romines, 15, in Union County. West was also convicted in the rape of Sheila Romines. West’s co-defendant, Ronnie Martin, confessed to being the actual killer. Martin was a juvenile at the time and ineligible for the death penalty.

► Oct. 10, 2019, for Charles Walton Wright, convicted in 1985 of two counts of premeditated first degree murder for the 1984 killings of Gerald Mitchell and Douglass Alexander during a drug transaction in Nashville. 

► Dec. 5, 2019, for Lee Hall, also known as Lee Hall Jr. convicted in 1993 for the murder of Traci Crozier in Hamilton County. Hall threw gasoline on Crozier, his ex-girlfriend, then set her on fire while she was inside her car. Crozier suffered third-degree burns to nearly all of her body and later died.

► Feb. 20, 2020, for Nicholas Todd Sutton, convicted in 1986 for the stabbing and killing of Carl Estep in Morgan County. Sutton was in prison for the murder of his grandmother when he and another inmate stabbed Estep 38 times.

► April 9, 2020, for Abu-Ali Abdur’ Rahman, formerly known as James Lee Jones, convicted in 1987 for the murder of Patrick Daniels in Nashville, where Daniels was selling marijuana. 

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Includes reporting by Natalie Allison and Anita Wadhwani. 

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