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Facing execution, Tennessee inmate says he wasn’t a killer

By JONATHAN MATTISEAugust 2, 2019
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This booking photo released by the Tennessee Department of Corrections shows Stephen West. The Tennessee death row inmate is asking Gov. Bill Lee to spare his life, maintaining that he didn’t actually kill a mother or her daughter three decades ago. West’s clemency application says his co-defendant, then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin, stabbed both people to death. His execution is slated for Aug. 15. Martin is serving a life sentence and is eligible for parole in 2030. (Tennessee Department of Corrections via AP)
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This booking photo released by the Tennessee Department of Corrections shows Stephen West. The Tennessee death row inmate is asking Gov. Bill Lee to spare his life, maintaining that he didn’t actually kill a mother or her daughter three decades ago. West’s clemency application says his co-defendant, then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin, stabbed both people to death. His execution is slated for Aug. 15. Martin is serving a life sentence and is eligible for parole in 2030. (Tennessee Department of Corrections via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee inmate scheduled for execution this month has asked the governor to spare his life, saying his accomplice was the one who fatally stabbed a mother and her daughter in 1986.

In a clemency plea to Gov. Bill Lee, attorneys for Stephen West say then 17-year-old Ronnie Martin actually killed both victims. West was 23 at the time. Their cases were separated, and while West was sentenced to death, Martin pleaded guilty and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 2030 as a juvenile ineligible for the death penalty.

West, 56, is set to receive a lethal injection Aug. 15 at a Nashville prison.

“I wrestle with this very much because it is a difficult decision,” said Lee, a Republican. “But we’re in that process and we’ll have a decision before that date.”

Regardless of West’s arguments about who killed the women, Tennessee is one of 27 states that allow executions of “non-triggermen” convicted of involvement in a felony resulting in a victim’s death, even if they didn’t kill anyone themselves, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

At least 11 people have been put to death nationwide despite admissions by prosecutors that those defendants had no involvement in the killings themselves, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. In West’s case, an expert at trial concluded two people were involved in stabbing the teen.

West’s clemency filing says the jury never heard a jail recording from Martin saying he carried out the killings, not West. But a 1989 state Supreme Court opinion rejected the recording as uncorroborated hearsay that wouldn’t have exonerated West. West’s attorney opted against playing the tape at sentencing because the judge would have allowed other recordings in which Martin incriminated West, court records show.

West was found guilty of the kidnapping and stabbing deaths of 51-year-old Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila Romines. He also was convicted of the teenager’s rape, which he said he committed under threat of harm by Martin.

West has a separate federal appeal pending.

In March 1986, West and Martin left work at a McDonald’s in Lake City, Tennessee and roamed the countryside, drinking in Martin’s mother’s car, and eventually heading to the Romines’ house in Union County, court records say.

In the early morning, West and Martin waited for the family’s husband and father to leave for work, then knocked on the door, and Martin told Wanda Romines he wanted to borrow money. She let them in. Martin previously tried to date Sheila Romines, but she rejected him, the clemency filing says.

Afterward, authorities found Sheila Romines was stabbed 17 times and her mother multiple times, both suffering torturous cuts, court filings state.

In the 1989 opinion, Tennessee’s high court upheld West’s conviction and death sentence, saying he met key conditions of the law after being proven to be a “major participant” with a mental state of “reckless indifference to human life.”

“It is beyond question that defendant was a major participant in the underlying felonies of rape and kidnapping and was present throughout the rather substantial time period during which the numerous stabbings of the two victims took place,” the court said.

The court noted West offered multiple stories about what happened, but made no effort to leave, seek help, overpower Martin or report the killings afterward.

Two jurors who helped convict and sentence West wrote that the governor should let him live.

“I pray for Stephen West every day and do not wish for him to be executed,” juror Joanne Odum wrote in an affidavit sent to Lee.

West’s attorneys also said the jury didn’t hear about his abusive upbringing because his parents paid for his lead lawyer. They wrote that the abuse created conditions that made West freeze in response to traumatic events.

West was born in an Indiana mental institution where his mother was committed after trying to kill herself by inhaling carbon monoxide from a gas oven while pregnant with him, the clemency filing states.

The clemency plea adds that West has been taking powerful medication to treat mental illness in prison and is involved with a prison ministries organization, Men of Valor. 

It’s the same group Lee touted and worked with as a board member and mentor. Lee, who emphasized his Christian faith while running for his first-term, opted against intervening in the first execution under his watch in May — an inmate who had undergone a religious conversion.

Though West maintains he didn’t kill either victim, his clemency plea says he’s remorseful for raping the teen and for not trying to stop the crimes. “Listen, I gave my life to God,” West said in a video sent to Lee, “but I also see it as a cowardice move that I didn’t help those ladies.”

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Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.

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