Tennessee Executes Stephen West for 1986 Rape and Murders
Stephen West has been executed in the electric chair 33 years after he was sentenced to death for the 1986 murders of Wanda Romines, 51, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, near Knoxville. West, who suffered from severe mental illness, was also convicted of raping the teen, and while he confessed to that crime he maintained that his accomplice stabbed the mother and daughter to death.
The curtains opened at 7:15 on Thursday night, revealing West, who appeared to be crying, sitting in the electric chair. Warden Tony Mays asked West if he had any last words. He responded by referencing scripture.
“In the beginning, God created man,” said West, pausing as he continued to weep. “And Jesus wept. That’s all.”
After West’s final statement, members of the execution team fastened a helmet to his head and placed a shroud over his face. At 7:19, West’s body jolted upward from the chair as the first current of electricity was administered. His body returned to the chair for a matter of seconds, before rising once again with a second jolt of electricity.
West was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m.
In West’s petition for clemency, his attorneys write that then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin had tried to date Sheila Romines and was humiliated when she rejected him. They say Martin coerced West, who was 23 years old at the time, to rape Sheila before Martin stabbed the women to death. The attorneys also note that West was tried first, and that his jury never heard a tape recording of Martin admitting that he was the one who had killed the two victims. They also write that Martin threatened to have West and his then-pregnant wife killed if West didn’t keep quiet about the crimes. Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence.
Two of the surviving jurors from West’s trial, both of whom had originally voted for the death sentence, told his attorneys they supported clemency in his case. Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday afternoon that he would not stop the execution.
West was born in a mental institution, where his mother had been sent after she attempted suicide while pregnant with him. As a young boy he was abused. His aunt witnessed his mother’s violent outbursts and is quoted describing them in a court filing from last year.
“I came down,” she said. “[West’s sister] Patty came out to get some food for Steve, and [West’s mother] started swearing at them, and she ran in there and just slung Steve up against the wall; grabbed him by his feet. There was blood, and he started throwing up.”
Prison officials have been treating West for severe mental illness for years, giving him powerful antipsychotic drugs that one psychiatrist described in a court filing as “chemical straitjackets.” In an extensive 2002 psychiatric evaluation, Dr. Richard Dudley writes that, in his opinion, West “was suffering from a mental disorder” at the time of the killings that sent him to death row. Dudley also says West’s “mental disorder was of the type that would have been relevant to his defense during the guilt phase of his trial and also relevant as mitigation during the penalty phase of his trial.” West’s mental health was not discussed during his trial.
West’s legal team released a statement after the execution:
We are deeply disappointed that the State of Tennessee has gone forward with the execution of a man whom the State has diagnosed with severe mental illness; a man of deep faith who has made a positive impact on those around him for decades; and a man who by overwhelming evidence did not commit these murders but has nevertheless taken personal responsibility for his involvement in these crimes. We don’t believe the decisions of the courts and ultimately the Governor reflect the forgiving and merciful citizens of this State.
Department of Correction spokesperson Dorinda Carter also read a statement from Eddie Campbell, the nephew of the late Jack Romines, husband and father to the victims.
As for the execution of Mr. Stephen West, I am deeply sorry that any of his family had to go through such a horrible experience. I hope that he has made peace with God and has truly asked God for forgiveness for such a heinous crime that he was a part of. One of the worst things about this execution of Mr. West is that Mr. Ronnie Martin was not also included in the same punishment. Our family has suffered very deeply over the past 33 years through all the appeals that we think is very unfair for anyone to have to go through, when all the proof in the world was there for the case to be over in 24 hours let alone 33 years. I realize there are other families going through some of the same feelings and punishment that my family and I have had to experience very needlessly. Something in our Judicial system has to be done to put a stop to all this needless suffering for families of prolonged justice. I just wish that my Uncle Jack Romines, the father and husband of the two people that mean the most to him in his life and was so brutally murdered on March 17, 1986, could have lived long enough to know that the State of Tennessee finally brought justice in part for his loss. Uncle Jack passed away with a massive heart attack on February 25, 2008, he was only 69 years old and had to live with his wife and daughter for the last 22 years of his life, but told me almost every day how he missed them. I realized that 1 day or 22 years without a loved one is horrible enough, but having to go through all the reminders of the Court of Appeals and not knowing if justice will ever come or not is just too much for victims families to have to deal with. I just hope and pray that our Judicial system in Tennessee will consider the feelings of the victims’ families that are still living in such a horrible situation and try and bring a speedy and correct justice to not only the families, but to the State of Tennessee as well. Most of our family is now deceased, but I have forgiveness in my heart for Mr. West and Mr. Martin, but I don’t think that justice should be ignored. On behalf of my Uncle Jack Romines and the remaining members of our family I hope this statement will be published in its entirety and not just in parts.
West is the fifth Tennessee prisoner to be executed since August 2018, and the third of those men to choose the electric chair. One more execution is scheduled for this year — Lee Hall’s on Dec. 5 — and two are currently scheduled for 2020. The state of Tennessee has not killed this many prisoners at this pace since the 1940s.