“Three days after being shot at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, Joe Barnhart’s stance on capital punishment has weakened.”
That’s the beginning of an article authored by Marti Davis that appeared in yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel and can be read by clicking HERE.
“The 76-year-old says he used to support capital punishment, but now it doesn’t seem the answer for what he calls “this kind of evil.”
That quote was taken from Associated Press writer Duncan Mansfield’s article which can be read by clicking HERE.
It has become clear that the shooter intended to die in the ordeal. He indicated in some pages found in his vehicle that he presumed he would die by police gun fire. This knowledge and Joe Barnhart’s change of heart leads me to question, what purpose then does the death penalty serve? One of the main implied purposes of the death penalty is to serve as a deterrent to potential violence. We’ve had the death penalty in Tennessee since 1976 and have used it and tragedies continue to occur. Joe Barnhart has realized that responding to this kind of evil with a death sentence accomplishes nothing. Life without parole is a viable sentence that keeps individuals like the shooter in prison for the rest of their lives.
I think that it takes a lot of courage to speak publicly and take a stance as Barnhart has done. I applaud him for doing so.
On Thursday, April 24, I picked up Curtis McCarty from the Knoxville airport. We locked eyes as he passed through the security checkpoint and he flashed me a peace sign. As we shook hands, I tensed up–Curtis McCarty spent nearly 19 years on Oklahoma’s death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Would we talk about anything other than death row? Would we talk about death row at all? Would we have anything in common? As we walked to the car, Curtis and I spoke of our mutual fondness for the Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine and our disdain for text messaging and pop music.
I told Curtis that we’d have some time to relax before our speaking engagement at the University of Tennessee Knoxville Law School. He grinned. “If there’s anything I know how to do, it’s killing time.” The weather was pleasant so I gave Curtis a walking tour of the UT Campus. Students were out and about playing frisbee, volleyball, and baseball. I only graduated from college eleven months ago, so this was a familiar sight. Curtis’s educational experience was different. He completed junior high, but dropped out of high school. While on death row, Curtis kept up with his studies in science and technology and educated himself on the laws dictating his life. When he speaks, its quickly apparent that he’s deeply intelligent. His words are chosen carefully. It’s almost as if he speaks with the belief that every sentence could be his last.
Before Curtis was to speak at the law school, I told him that there would be attorneys, law professors, and students in the audience. This was an important event for TCASK; we’re always looking to build relationships with schools. The room filled to almost 70 people. It was a Thursday evening in the midst of final exams.
Curtis began by immediately taking responsibility for ending up on death row. He shamefully recounted the juvenile history of drugs and crime which led him to associate with the murdered individual. To Curtis, his poor choices prior to his incarceration played a large role in his ending up in prison.
Yet, the state of Oklahoma is ultimately responsible for sending an innocent man to death row. The case of Curtis McCarty is riddled with problems that suggest he was wrongfully convicted in the murder of Pam Willis: suppressed evidence, destroyed evidence, and perjured testimony. Curtis spoke about his case with the knowledge and eloquence of a law professor. The students were impressed; some said Curtis knew more about death penalty law than they did, and were eager to bring him back for the UT Law Review Death Penalty Symposium next year.
The next day I took Curtis to speak at two assemblies at Knoxville Catholic High School. Again, this was an important event for us: Creating a strong base of Catholic support in Eastern Tennessee has always been a priority for TCASK. This time, Curtis spoke in a manner that suited the ages of his audience. Rather than sifting through the legal problems pervading his case, he focused on the personal story of his life.
“The only two people on this entire Earth who would testify on behalf of the worthiness of my life were my two parents. I have never been more ashamed in my entire life after I saw my mom tearfully pleading for the jury to spare me. I was still sentenced to death.”
He shared photos taken at five year intervals when he was on death row. “It’s tough to look at these photos because all I see are missed birthdays, graduations, soccer games, and weddings.” The Principal told me afterwards that he saw specific students that he knew to be drug users hanging onto Curtis’s every word. He said that we need to bring back Curtis every year.
The death penalty system is broken. 128 individuals have been released from death rows nationwide when evidence of their innocence emerged. Curtis knows this better than anyone, but he also knows that a life of crime made it easier for the state to convict him. It is a rare sight to witness someone so gracefully admit his shortcomings. A high school student asked Curtis, “When you got out of prison, were you angry?”
He replied, “I was angry, in fact I was very angry. I soon realized though that bitterness is unproductive. I wanted to be productive, and I wanted to seek justice. In order to do this, I had to stop being angry and instead tell my story.” The story of Curtis McCarty is a story that needs to be told, over and over and over again.
There is a murder case in Knoxville that is attracting a lot of news coverage. The case involves the murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom aged 21 and 23 respectively. The state is seeking the death penalty for the four individuals that are being charged for the murder. On Monday, March 3rd, WVLT (Volunteer TV) ran a story about Tennessee’s death penalty in conjunction with the Christian-Newsom murder. You can view the video by clicking HERE.
Highlights of the video include District Attorney General Al Schmutzer stating the following: “if we cannot actually carry out what we say we are going to do in a reasonable amount of time, then we really need to get rid of it because I think it’s doing more harm than good.” You may remember that General Schmutzer is on the committee to study the administration of the death penalty in Tennessee.
I think that Schmutzer’s argument is a valid one. If the intent of the death penalty is to enact the punishment worthy of that sentence, then the state of Tennessee is failing. The average death sentence in Tennessee is over 22 years. The death penalty is promised to families after the murder of their loved ones. Those who find solace in the knowledge that the perpetrator will be executed have to wait two decades while reliving the story over and over again as the inmate seeks his/her appeals. Only 3% of homicides result in a death sentence. The state of Tennessee has only executed 4 inmates since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Why is the state spending millions on a public policy that has been realized 4 times in over 30 years?
Fortunately, questions such as that are being answered in the reform oriented study committee. Those who would have you believe that the study committee has an abolitionist purpose or is holding up executions in the state of Tennessee are flat out wrong. The committee is made up of a cross-section of the law and is chaired by a pro-death penalty state senator (Sen. Doug Jackson). Executions are not occurring because the US Supreme Court is undergoing a case questioning the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocols.
I want to thank General Schmutzer for stating what he believes. A public policy that makes promises it does not keep should not be in existence. And, a public policy that is arbitrary, capricious, and costly should not be in existence.