A Tennessee death row inmate sentenced nearly 30 years ago on first-degree murder charges died in prison Monday of apparent natural causes at 71 years old.
James Dellinger, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for first-degree murder in Blount County, was found dead just before noon at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, authorities told local media.
Tennessee Department of Correction told local media the cause of the death is unknown.
Authorities said a medical examiner would determine the exact cause of death.
Attorney Amy D. Harwell said in a statement to WBIR that Dellinger had been battling cancer.
“Mr. Dellinger died before his legal team was able to vindicate his absolute and unwavering insistence that he was innocent of the murders that sent him to death row,” Harwell said.
“Mr. Dellinger was the consummate East Tennessee story teller, among the last of a breed of mountain men who lived large and recounted his adventures in even larger stories.”
“To spend any time with James Dellinger was a gift—getting to listen to a master practice his craft. From bear stories to moonshine, James Dellinger knew how to keep an audience enthralled. His family and legal team mourn his passing,” she added.
Dellinger and co-defendant Gary Sutton were sentenced to death in the 1992 murder of 24-year-old Tommy Griffin.
Local media reported court records to read that authorities arrested Griffin for public intoxication after drinking with Dellinger and Sutton at a bar in Maryville. Later that evening, Dellinger and Sutton bailed Griffin out of jail.
Griffin’s body was discovered three days later near the Little River in Townsend on February 21, 1992, where gunshots were reportedly heard shortly after Dellinger and Sutton bailed him out of jail.
Griffin had been shot at close range with a shotgun and left alongside the river, according to Muderpedia.org.
Dellinger and Sutton reportedly killed Griffin’s sister, Connie Branam, the next day after she had searched for her brother.
Branam’s body was discovered in her burned vehicle.
Both Dellinger and Sutton were convicted of Branam’s murder in 1993.
Authorities originally scheduled Sutton’s execution date on October 6. However, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a reprieve in May.
Lee paused all executions in the state due to a Tennessee Department of Correction report indicating authorities failed to follow its lethal injection protocol, which had been introduced in 2018
Department officials said they would revise the protocol and training.