Archive for the ‘Tennessee’ Category
Yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of the death penalty study extension bill, extending the life of the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty for two months through the end of 2008. The original extension bill would have extended the Committee’s life for a full year until October 2009.
Senator Mark Norris of Memphis proposed the bill’s amendment. Ultimately the amended bill passed with “yes” votes from Senators Doug Jackson, Jim Kyle, Beverly Marrero, John Wilder, Diane Black and Mark Norris. Senators Jamie Woodson, Mae Beavers, and Paul Stanley passed on the vote.
The District Attorneys’ Conference has been resisting any extension of this Study Committee as its leadership claimed that the Committee was stacked with abolitionists. Unfounded and unfair accusations have been made by the DA’s Conference’s Executive Director, Wally Kirby, in media outlets throughout the state concerning the work and membership of this Committee. In fact, within the Judiciary meeting yesterday, Senator Kyle raised the possibility of disbanding the Committee and reappointing a whole different committee. However, Senator Jackson quickly stated that the current Committee is a fair minded and talented group of people who should be allowed to finish the work that they started. Thankfully, the majority of the Judiciary agreed.
The bill must now pass the full House and Senate, and we are hopeful that it will.
Media coverage of the pending release of Paul House continues to flow in. Click HERE to watch an interview with Joyce House, Paul’s mother. You may have to look below amongst the other video options to find the interview with Joyce.
Also, Sarah Kelley of the Nashville Scene has written an article on Paul House. It can be READ HERE.
On April 2nd, TCASK members from across the state convened in Nashville at the state capitol to voice their opinions on the death penalty to Tennessee legislators. Last year’s Justice Day on the Hill was critical in the passage of Senate Bill 1911—a bill to create the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty. The Committee began meeting in October 2007 and has been producing fantastic results, uncovering myriad problems within Tennessee’s death penalty system. A primary focus of Justice Day this year was thanking legislators for the creation of the Study Committee as well as those legislators who signed onto Rep. Mike Turner’s letter asking the Governor to pardon Paul House. Another aspect of Justice Day involved asking legislators to consider extending the study for an additional year in order that it be thorough and complete.
Justice Day on the Hill epitomizes what TCASK is about—ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things. How many folks out there can claim to have met directly with their elected officials to voice their opinion on the death penalty and advocate for change? Not many. Sometimes it seems that our society’s obsession with being entertained has led to a great deal of apathy. I recently read a NY Times article prompted by the death of the 4,000th U.S. serviceperson in Iraq. The content of the article was mostly made up of emails and blogs written by U.S. soldiers. One soldier, Ryan Wood, wrote a telling commentary concerning U.S. society and its infatuation with celebrity such as Britney Spears. “This little piece of truly, heart-breaking news captured headlines and apparently American imaginations as FOX news did a two hour, truly enlightening piece of breaking news history. American viewers watched intently, and impatiently as the pretty colors flashed and the media exposed the inner workings of Brittany’s obviously, deep character. I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low.”
Tennessee’s broken death penalty might seem less important when you place it up there with issues like the war in Iraq or Darfur, but it is important to me. It’s also important to folks like Leslie who made the 2 hour trek from Tracy City to Nashville. It’s important to Amy who made the 3 hour trek from Memphis to join her mother Doris for Justice Day. It is important to students like Kathryn, Mary, Michelle, Anna, and Whitney who woke up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Nashville for Justice Day on the Hill from East Tennessee. Try asking these folks what they think about apathy as they huddle up outside of a legislator’s office to plan out their meeting. They would acknowledge it exists, but they witness to the power of engagement. They witness to democracy, to grassroots, and to change.
My first meeting of the day was with Rep. Chris Crider. I brought Doris and Amy (future Board Chair of TCASK) along with me. Amy seemed nervous. I ended up leading most of the meeting which was successful. Afterwards, we debriefed, and I focused on how easy it is because legislators want to hear from you. Amy still appeared uneasy, especially after I told her that we had planned on her leading some meetings later on in the day. After lunch I ran into Amy for the first time since our first meeting. Immediately I could tell there was something different about her as she shared about her experience of leading a very powerful meeting with Senator Beverly Marrero. As an organizer you dream of moments like this when folks feel empowered to make their voices heard. You put in long hours coordinating the event—setting up meetings, creating materials, doing outreach. All of that time is worth it when you see someone realize their own power.
TCASK schedules Justice Day on the Hill far in advance so we were thrilled to learn that the House Judiciary Sub Committee of Criminal Practice and Procedures would be voting to extend the life of the study committee on April 2nd. This gave the day an additional level of excitement and importance. In the end, the bill to extend the life of the study committee made it out of sub-committee. It still has a LONG way to go. But I am confident that it will pass as long as citizens continue to advocate for change and realize their own power.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! If you’re not wearing green, I hope you get pinched.
My favorite holiday, International Death Penalty Abolition Day, has passed. This year’s commemoration of the day that Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1847 on March 1st was a special one. 2008 was the 6th year that TCASK volunteers from across the state wrote letters to their elected officials in organized write-a-thons. Write-a-thons happened in Memphis, Nashville (3 of them), Sewanee, and Knoxville. After the last count, there have been over 250 letters sent to members of the Tennessee legislature. 250 is the largest amount ever sent by a coordinated effort in Tennessee. So, if you participated in the 2008 International Death Penalty Abolition Day Write-a-Thon in Tennessee, you were part of record setting effort. Kudos!
However, if you were not able to make it to one of the write-a-thon locations, do not fret. Salvation can be found by CLICKING HERE. This link will take you to our letter-writing page that has sample letters that you can download to write your legislators. If the letters are not downloading correctly, check back later, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Letter writing is one of the most influential ways to communicate with politicians. When they receive a hand-written letter, they take it seriously. Continue to write letters–don’t limit this important activity to once a year–make your voice heard!
Once again, Sarah Kelley of the Nashville Scene has authored another superb/eye-opening/troubling article on Tennessee’s death penalty. The article, titled “Death Row Lotto” focuses on the randomness at which this failed public policy is applied, read it HERE. Issues of proportionality, prosecutor discretion, inadequate defense, and many more are all explored. Highlights of the article include:
“Even though a case might technically meet the test for the death penalty, it might not be appropriate. That’s what proportionality review is all about,” says David Raybin, a former prosecutor, who in 1972 took on the task of rewriting the state’s capital punishment laws. “It’s an extra safeguard so you don’t have an aberrant or freakish imposition of the death penalty. That’s what it’s designed to do. How it’s being applied in practice is a different story.”
On prosecutor discretion:
“To me, the prosecutor is the most powerful person in the state in the sense that there’s no review of his decision to seek the death penalty,” says Bill Reddick, director of the Tennessee Justice Project. For the past two decades, the longtime criminal defense lawyer has handled death penalty cases almost exclusively . And from his experience, Reddick says it’s clear that although the law requires capital punishment to be reserved for the worst offenders, instead it’s often handed out randomly in Tennessee. “There’s a big difference in the way prosecutors exercise discretion in the decision to seek death…. The type of justice being applied varies in different parts of the state.”
On inadequate defense:
“Due to an unqualified defense lawyer at trial, it would be several years before details emerged about Harbison’s horrific childhood, during which his mother beat him with belts and extension cords, his sister shot at him, his father attacked him with a power drill, and his older brother set him on fire. Also unknown to the jury was the fact that an expert had previously determined Harbison was borderline mentally retarded and psychologically impaired as a result of a lifetime of abuse, making him an easy target for a streetwise criminal like David Schreane to manipulate. But perhaps the most shocking post-trial revelation was that police failed to turn over crucial documents naming a third suspect who never was charged in connection with the murder, and instead was extradited to Florida on unrelated charges. Despite repeated requests for all files related to the investigation, this key evidence was withheld from Harbison’s defense until 14 years after he was sentenced to die.”
Earlier today, Judge Harry Mattice held a hearing on the case of Paul House. What made this hearing unique was that Paul House was asked to be present at the hearing himself. Judge Mattice wanted to view his condition and hear from Paul’s physician at Riverbend. The reason being that Paul’s attorneys are asking for his release pending the retrial. This would allow Paul to remain at home as the case makes it way back to the 6th circuit and presumably back to the state of Tennessee. The Knoxville News Sentinel covered the hearing and the article can be read HERE.
Highlights from the article include:
Today he (Judge Mattice) told Associate Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith it’s time to decide the issue.
“Let me say this, Miss Smith, do what you got to do but let’s do it quickly,” Mattice said. “I think it’s time to go ahead and decide, let’s retry Mr. House or do what we’re gonna do.”
He also questioned the state’s contention that House is a flight risk.
“The fact that Mr. House is ill does not eliminate the risk that we would lose this individual and be unable to retry him,” Smith said.
“How would that happen, by the way?” Mattice responded, looking at House sitting in his wheelchair.
At 11:30 a.m. this morning over 25 concerned Tennesseans convened in front of the office of Attorney General Bob Cooper to ask him to drop his appeal in the case of Paul House. The weather was frigid–thermometers read around 13 degrees, even colder with the wind chill–but as the Rev. Sonnye Dixon put it so eloquently in his opening prayer “God delivers us this cold weather to remind us of the cold hearts we need to warm up in this (AG’s) office.”
Rev. Stacy Rector (TCASK Executive Director) kicked off the rally with a stirring rendition of the events that have transpired around Paul House’s case. She reminded us that this case has already seen the halls of the 6th circuit court of appeals three times already. She then asked, kindly, to the Attorney General that we, as the state of Tennessee, admit that this time we were wrong. She wasn’t implicating the Attorney General for actions that took place decades ago, she was instead asking him to do the right thing now. There’s shouldn’t be winners and losers declared in this arena, only the resounding voice of justice. On an unrelated note, Peter Irons wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Tennessean yesterday. He was a bit tougher on the AG, read it HERE.
Following Rev. Rector and Rev. Dixon was Rep. Mike Turner (Old Hickory). I have not been in Tennessee for long, nor have I had the chance to interact with a substantial amount of Tennessee’s state legislators. However, Rep. Turner is someone I admire deeply. He might be a politician, but he isn’t political. He does what he knows is right and does not cease until the mission is accomplished. These are rare traits amongst politicians, or anyone for that matter. Rep. Turner appeared solemn as he delivered his concise remarks. It was as if he was in disbelief that he had to speak about Paul’s continued incarceration especially after receiving “the Christmas gift” that was Judge Mattice’s ruling. I was waiting for Rep. Turner to lay one into General Cooper and to be critical of this action. Instead, Rep. Turner like Rev. Rector employed the grace and understanding that it takes in situations like this. He stated, “I know Bob Cooper and he is a good man. This wasn’t a decision by him, but it was made by those behind him. If Bob wasn’t the Attorney General, he’d be down here with us, out in this cold.”
No rally is complete without music, and you know TCASK loves its music. We were so fortunate to have three excellent artists there, make that three excellent people. Julie Lee played with Bill Tennyson and they sung a beautiful hymn about Psalm 91.
Psalm 91: 5-10, “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”
Julie organized a “Free Paul House” concert in 2006 and continues to support the campaign with her beautiful music and energy. Michael Kelsh was the third artist and he sang a classic union song customized for Tennessee and Paul House. Stacy declared Michael to be the “official TCASK musician.” We can always count on Michael to provide us with his soulful voice and skillful guitar playing.
As a grassroots organization it is vital that we have rallies like today’s. It builds solidarity and bolsters the conviction of those present because there is no witness like a public one. I want to congratulate all those who came, but also to those who couldn’t make it, but have kept Paul, his mother Joyce, and all those mired in injustice in their thoughts. We couldn’t do this work without you. Paul won’t be freed without you. We won’t abolish the death penalty without you.
Last Thursday, Isaac and I traveled to San Jose, CA for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) conference. The conference was great (as was the weather!), and we will be writing about some of our experiences there. However, in the midst of our conference, I received a phone call from Joyce House informing me that the state had appealed Judge Mattice’s ruling which gave the state 180 days to try Paul House
or let him go.
This move by the state to appeal this ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (where House’s case has already been numerous times) is so utterly disappointing that words are hard to come by. Governor Bredesen has long claimed that he wanted the courts to sort this case out. Well, this appeal by the state demonstrates what defense lawyers have long known, that the state loves to point fingers of blame at defense counsel for filing frivolous appeals in death penalty cases, and often, it is the state’s delay tactics that drag these cases on and on.
The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have spoken over and over again on this case but because the state of Tennessee doesn’t like yet another ruling in House’s favor from a federal judge who studied the evidence in this case for six months, the state of Tennessee makes a frivolous appeal which will cost taxpayers lots of money, and everyone lots of time.
I so wanted to believe that Tennessee would do the right thing here. At the time of House’s trial in the 1980’s, the state did not have access to DNA testing which would have made all the difference. How hard would it be to simply acknowledge that with new technology available–technology the state didn’t have in 1985–that a mistake was made in convicting House for the murder of Carolyn Muncey and sentencing him to death? Are we to a point that our leaders no longer believe that they make mistakes?
At the NCADP conference, we heard powerful testimony from Texas prosecutor, Sam Millsap who prosecuted many death cases, and in fact, told us that all those for whom he secured a death sentence are now dead, including Ruben Cantu, who Millsap now believes was innocent of the crime for which he was executed. Millsap is now against the death penalty because he believes the risk of error is too great and the costs are too high. Someone at the conference stood up and lauded Millsap saying that he greatly respected his courage in admitting his error publicly in the Cantu case. Though appreciative of the comment, Millsap stated that he finds it to be disturbing that in our current climate in this country one is called courageous if he/she admits a mistake. He said, “simply doing what your mama and daddy told you is the right thing to do (telling the truth and admitting error) shouldn’t be called courageous.”
Why can’t the state of Tennessee simply admit the mistake? Is the state somehow above admitting their flaws? We all make mistakes…each and every one of us, some with more devastating consequences than others. We are flawed people who create flawed systems. But, when we refuse to acknowledge those flaws, everyone loses.
Who loses here? Obviously Paul House whose adult life has been spent on death row for a crime which all the evidence now indicates he didn’t commit–who now sits in a wheelchair unable to feed himself as his body withers away with multiple sclerosis; Joyce House, his mother, who has spent her life advocating for her son, attempting to keep hope alive for him when doors continue to slam in his face; citizens of this state whose tax dollars are wasted keeping House in prison and on frivolous appeals by the state when police officers don’t have the resources that they need and Tennesseans can’t get health care; and the state government loses as well, as more and more Tennesseans question the “justice” of the criminal justice system and who it really serves.
Though those of us who have put our hearts and lives into this fight for Paul House are down right now, we are not out. We are not out because I believe like Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” In the same speech from which the previous quote was taken, King goes on to say that, “We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right as we were singing earlier today, ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future. And behind the dim unknown stands God, Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.’”
Injustice will not prevail. We shall overcome in this battle for House’s freedom. We shall overcome in this battle against the death penalty. Not because of who we are but because of who God is–a God of justice and mercy. We shall overcome.
Kudos to James Staub for his piece in Sunday’s Tennessean. As a murder victim’s family member, James’ voice is of vital importance as the state of Tennessee examines the death penalty, particularly concerning the question of whether or not it serves victims’ families.
James points out that the current lethal injection debate is just one detail as we consider the larger questions involved with the death penalty. He raises issues of wrongful convictions, cost, and the increasing numbers of victims’ families, law enforcement, and district attorneys who believe that the death penalty is a diversion of tax dollars and an ineffective deterrent.
As I read the article and continue to reflect on the death penalty as a public policy, I wonder again and again why we hang on to it? If it is not a deterrent, costs too much, does not serve victims’ families, and is not necessary to protect us, then why? Why?
About 10 minutes ago my sister made me aware of this fantastic article from Time Magazine titled “Death Penalty Walking” written by David Von Drehle. I am embarrassed to say that she found it before me, but, she writes for Time Inc. so she has a slight advantage. You can read the article HERE. The article, spurred by the US Supreme Court case, gives a comprehensive review of the problems plaguing this public policy as well as discussion into lethal injection and the importance of Baze v. Rees.
On the method of executions:
“In a perfect world, perhaps, the government wouldn’t wait 30 years and several hundred executions to determine whether an execution method makes sense. But the world of capital punishment has never been that sort of place. This weighty moral issue, expressive of some of our society’s deeply held values, involves a lot of winging it. In 1990, for instance, a sponge used in the headpiece of Florida’s electric chair wore out. There’s no factory or parts catalog for execution devices, so the prison sent a guy to pick up a sponge at the store. Problem was, he bought a synthetic sponge instead of a genuine sea sponge, and when Jesse Tafero was strapped in, his head caught fire. Florida officials diagnosed the problem afterward by testing a similar sponge in a toaster.”
Does this really surprise anyone? Well, let me rephrase, does this surprise anyone already familiar with how bungled up the death penalty is?
On lethal injection’s inception:
“In comparison, lethal injection sounds more scientific–almost therapeutic–but its history is as improvised as that supermarket sponge. In 1977 an Oklahoma lawmaker sketched the protocol on a notepad with the help of a medical examiner. More research has gone into the proper way to brush your teeth.”
From what I understand, one of the more compelling reasons that a 3 drug cocktail has been administered for so long is that officials felt it would be odd to use the same procedures on animals as on humans. Animals (sick ones) are fortunate enough to receive a one drug dose which kills them in a humane manner while humans (healthy ones) are given a concoction that was chosen because it was simply divergent than the animal practices.
Fix it or end it:
“The debate almost always comes down to the question of whether to fix it or end it. But these alternatives largely miss the reality. Every attempt to fix the death penalty bogs down in the same ambivalence. We add safeguards one day, then shortcut them the next. One government budget contains millions of dollars for prosecutions, while another department spends more millions to defend against them. Indeed, the very essence of ambiguity is our vain search for a bloodless, odorless, motionless, painless, foolproof mode of killing healthy people. No amount of patching changes the nature of a Rube Goldberg machine.”
Reading that above made me think of sitting in on the committee meetings thus far here in Tennessee. Any attempt to fix it is of course a positive act and one that I would welcome, but, it would cost the state millions of dollars and (the article delves into this) open up new venues for death penalty attorneys to appeal their cases. I applaud Tennessee’s efforts to study and fix the administration of the death penalty but as always, I will continue to advocate for abolition.
Uniqueness of Baze v. Rees
“There’s nothing attractive about the specifics of the death chamber. In the arguments on Jan. 7, the Justices may hear descriptions of bloody surgeries, called cutdowns, performed by EMTs and less trained prison officials as they struggle to insert IV lines into the ruined veins of longtime drug abusers. Without a doctor present, it often falls to prison officials–sometimes watching from a separate room–to determine whether an inmate is unconscious or simply paralyzed as the searingly painful heart-stopping agent potassium chloride takes effect.”
I’d like to think we live in a civilized society in the year 2008 but that paragraph conjures up thoughts up methods of torture from the Middle Ages. If we didn’t have the death penalty we would not have to waste our time with this case, amending the methods, the appeals, etc. Also, family members of the victims would not receive false promises of retribution and closure that never comes. Instead, they could rest easy knowing from the very beginning that the murderer will be behind bars in terrible conditions for the rest of their natural life. If the death penalty were never an option in the first place, I believe victims would be better served.