NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Three decades ago, Lisette Monroe turned to her 18-month-old daughter and came to a sobering realization: Her baby would likely finish college before the man who killed Monroe’s sister would be executed.
Today, Monroe’s oldest daughter has had an undergraduate degree for several years and Harold Nichols remains on death row in Tennessee. It wasn’t supposed to be this way — Nichols had been scheduled for execution Aug. 4 for the 1988 murder of 21-year-old Karen Pulley.
But Nichols’ execution was delayed until at least the end of the year by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who issued a rare reprieve amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Monroe said Lee’s announcement was another heartbreaking blow in dealing with the loss of her only sister. She had finally dared to believe this would be the first time in nearly 30 years the holiday season wouldn’t be mired with questions hanging around the killer who upended her family’s lives.
The latest delay prompted Monroe to launch a campaign asking friends to speak out against Lee’s decision. It’s not that she wants to see a man die. It’s that she relives the trauma and pain with every delay and twist in the case.
“My hurt does not get to take a break because of a pandemic,” Monroe told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I thought finally we were going to have justice. I thought finally I could go to Karen’s grave and say, ‘it’s over.’ But that’s not what I got. I got another excuse.”
Nichols was convicted of rape and first-degree felony murder in the death of Pulley, Monroe’s younger sister. Court documents say he raped and hit Pulley on the head several times with a board. She was found alive but died the following day. Nichols was sentenced to death in 1990.
As is typical with most death penalty cases, Nichols’ legal battle has dragged on for decades as attorneys have filed appeals — a process defense attorneys argue is needed to ensure mistakes aren’t made. Yet this system places a burden on victims’ families, taxpayers and inmates who live in limbo awaiting final word.
That wait seemed close to ending after Tennessee Supreme Court earlier this year twice declined to delay Nichols’ execution because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nichols, 59, had already chosen his execution method — electric chair over lethal injection, allowed in Tennessee for inmates convicted of crimes long ago — and a few media witnesses had been selected.
However, with less than a month to go, Lee sided with Nichols’ attorneys that the pandemic had prevented Nichols’ legal team from preparing a clemency application. Attorneys also argued Nichols hadn’t been able to sufficiently meet with friends, family, attorneys or his spiritual adviser.
Nationwide, 15 scheduled executions have been halted by reprieve this year, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Thirteen executions were granted reprieves in 2019.
Meanwhile, there have been six executions carried out by states and the federal government since March, when states began instituting widespread shutdowns.
More than 2,300 miles away from Tennessee, in western Washington, Monroe’s phone blew up with calls and text messages from loved ones alerting her of the governor’s decision.
Monroe said she’s disappointed over the delay but is equally frustrated to see continued attention on Nichols’ needs while justice for her sister’s death remains largely overlooked.
Three years apart in age, Pulley and Monroe navigated life’s challenges together — venting at times about parents and boys.
“We relied on each other a lot, I really miss her,” Monroe said, her voice breaking.
After processing the reprieve, Monroe sprang into action. She put out a social media call asking friends and family to reach out to the governor’s office with outraged messages.
At least 11 responded to Monroe’s call, messages obtained through an AP records request show. A smaller handful thanked the governor for delaying the execution.
“I understand these are crazy times we are living in. But my family deserves to have this nightmare finally come to a close! Nichols’ actions devastated my family and the community. I hope that you will reconsider delaying his execution any longer. We cannot have 4 more months of hell,” wrote Lauren Fader, 33, Monroe’s daughter.
Others slammed Lee for granting the reprieve around the same time he was enthusiastically endorsing in-person schooling during a pandemic.
“You advocate to send our children back to school in less than a month, but (a rapist and murderer’s) health is handled with kid gloves. What a disappointment,” wrote family friend Kristin Smith of Chattanooga.
Lee has since argued he didn’t believe the amount of resources needed to pull off an execution in the middle of a pandemic was the “right thing to do.”
Monroe, meanwhile, is bracing for another holiday season filled with unanswered questions — it’s unclear when the execution will be rescheduled.
She said she initially wasn’t planning to watch Nichol’s execution, but the delay has changed her mind.
“As a result of what just happened, you better believe I’ll be there. I just want it to be over,” she said. “The pain and the hurt won’t stop when he’s gone. It won’t bring Karen back. It won’t bring my girls the opportunity to know their aunt. But it’ll be over.”
This story has been corrected to show that it was Monroe who launched campaign critical of the governor’s decision.