Archive for January, 2007
Yesterday, the State Supreme Court set a new execution date for Daryl Holton, who was also nearly executed in September of last year. Holton is now scheduled to be executed on February 28th, only 6 days after the scheduled execution of E. J. Harbison on the 22nd. Ironically, Harbison’s execution (1:00 am on the 22nd, so really the night of the 21st) falls on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season on Lent, a season for repentance, forgiveness, and self reflection, as we prepare to commemorate another execution.
Holton’s execution date is considered very real and TCASK is very concerned about it. Holton’s date actually makes 5, that’s right 5, very serious execution dates set for the next 4 months, a frightening prospect, but a continually present one, for a state that has had only 2 executions in the past 47 years but also has the ninth largest death row in the country.
With impending executions, the clear brokenness of our capital punishment system and the need for a moratorium have never been clearer, and, at the same time as we face the possibility of our state beginning to kill people at a rate rivaled only by execution behemoths like TX, VA, and OK, we also face our best chances ever to pass legislation to halt the operation of this seriously flawed system. Our legislative partnerships have never been stronger and we’ve established functional TCASK groups all across the state. But we need everyone to take part, participate in a write-a-thon in your area, come to Justice Day on the Hill (March 27th) and get involved in your local TCASK chapter – or start one.
In the coming months, we can sit by as Tennessee becomes the next Texas, casually disregarding life and any semblance on justice and fairness, or we can stand up and make Tennessee follow in the footsteps of New Jersey and Illinois, calling a halt to executions and using this Lenten season to take a serious look at our death penalty system. The choice is yours.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
She was right when she said it and she’s still right today. I think we forget this sometimes, but, last night, I had the pleasure of being reminded by the first official organizing meeting of the newly founded Jackson Chapter of TCASK! We even got coverage in the Jackson Sun.
We’ve been working in Jackson for about a year now, and we’ve developed a strong group of contacts, done several presentations, and held a successful write-a-thon, but always by the dedicated efforts of a few people functioning as individuals. Now we’ve finally set up a chapter, to take the load off individuals and actually organize a group.
Last night, after a number of phone calls on my part, we had our first organizing meeting with a core group of people. We had representatives of the NAACP, Union University, Lambuth University, and the Catholic Church present and it was a wonderful and connected group. In just over an hour (I was on a tight time line, because folks are busy) we planned:
All of this will sync nicely with several presentations that I have already scheduled in the city, and, through the church outreach involved, will lead to more such presentations to continue to expand our lists in Jackson.
Now here’s the important part – everyone left with a job to do! I’ll be preparing materials, typing notes, and following up on several comments. One member will be securing locations for our write-a-thon and prayer service, another will contact several churches and set up a venue for lobby training, a third will be the point person for the write-a-thon, a fourth is going to represent the Jackson Chapter on the TCASK board.
Why is this important? Two reasons. The first is buy-in. Each of the attendees left with something to do, bringing them into the work. Second, I’m not doing it! I mean, I’m only one person, our staff is only two. We cannot do all the work around the state to end the death penalty, so we need to empower activists all across the state to take action for themselves.
That’s exactly what the new Jackson Chapter is ready to do!
Kudos to Dwight Lewis whose column Innocent behind bars: Can you imagine the hell of it? appeared in Sunday’s Tennessean. The article included mention of Tennessee’s own Paul House and asked the question which many Tennesseans continue to ask, “Why is Paul Gregory House still on Tennessee’s death row?” If you have copies of the article, please send them to Governor Bredesen at The Governor’s Office, Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville, TN 37243-0001 and ask him the same question.
The following went out to the media today:
Memphis, TN: The parish council of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception issued a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions during its monthly parish council meeting on Tuesday evening. The Catholic Church has called for an end to the death penalty in America for over thirty years, and a growing number of churches across Tennessee have recently joined in that call.
“Our Church has stated in no uncertain terms that the death penalty violates our belief in the dignity of human life,” said Father Val Handwerker, the pastor of the Cathedral. “Today our parish affirmed that we, as Catholics, cannot stand idly by as our state continues to kill in our name.”
The bishops’ statement against capital punishment also raised concerns about the arbitrary nature of the death penalty, especially the racial and economic biases, which persist in the capital punishment system.
“As a society we should be taking special care of the poor and disenfranchised, but it seems that, when we talk about the death penalty, we’re executing those people instead,” said Handwerker. In Tennessee, there are 102 people on death row, and not a single one of them could afford their own attorney at trial. Meanwhile, African-Americans make up 40% of Tennessee’s death row compared with only 17% of the general population.
Immaculate Conception is only the latest of over 100 churches and organizations in Tennessee to pass such a moratorium resolution, according to Alex Wiesendanger, a Jesuit Volunteer and Associate Director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK), who spoke to the congregation and parish council last year.
“Across the state churches, businesses, and city councils are calling for a moratorium on executions and a thorough study of how the death penalty system is administered,” Wiesendanger said. “With more than 120 people exonerated after being sentenced to death, people are recognizing that the death penalty runs the unacceptable risk of killing an innocent person.”
A moratorium is simply a time-out on executions. It is neither an endorsement nor a rejection of the death penalty.
“A moratorium allows us to examine the flaws in the system of capital punishment outside of the emotional context of a pending execution,” said Handwerker when asked about the call for a moratorium. “Even people who support capital punishment agree that the system should be applied fairly and that we don’t sentence the innocent to death. Those of us who oppose the death penalty have to initiate a conversation around this common ground in order to move forward.”
I am currently in the midst of preparations for a presentation which I will be making this evening at a local church. Besides the Biblical and theological information that I will explore, I am also reviewing lots of data, particularly numbers, concerning the death penalty. Numbers are not my thing, so I have to be sure I am sharp and ready to field questions! And as always, as I look at the numbers, I feel like I am being slapped in the face by the sheer force of them.
I always approach these presentations with a sense of expectancy, believing that both God and the numbers are with me. As the crowd gathers this evening for their Wednesday night supper of fried chicken and casseroles, I expect many will have never heard such numbers before, and jaws will drop when they are revealed. Not so long ago, a congressman whose name I can remember, was quoted as saying to a colleague speaking about the war in Iraq, “You are entitled to your own opinions, my friend, but not your own facts.”
Same goes for the death penalty. When people begin to hear the numbers, you can visibly see the discomfort:
The numbers are frightening. But, there they are. I will always share with people the reasons why the death penalty is wrong–Biblically and morally–because as a person of faith, I must. But, even considering my usual dislike of numbers, I must admit, that the numbers do starkly reveal the failure of the death penalty as a policy, so I will keep working on my numbers.
If you want to be serious about affecting policy change, you have to effectively communicate with policy-makers. Our public officials need to be moved by the necessary messages to take action in the public interest. And for elected officials, one of the most important messages they can hear is that their constituents support a certain action. So we need constituents.
Now think, for a moment, of E. J. Harbison, an African-American man sentenced to death by an all white jury for the murder of a white woman. Harbison had no criminal record, brought no weapon to burglarize the house, and went in when no one was home. In other words, short of the commission of a felony, there is really no aggravating factor here. Harbison would not be on death row if he wasn’t poor and African-American. To me, that sounds like an issue that Legislative Black Caucus should hear about.
On Friday, they did. Revered Joe Ingle, with an introduction from Representative Larry Turner, addressed the caucus about Harbison’s case and asked them to form a delegation to the Governor requesting clemency. And that’s where we start working. Because the caucus has heard the facts, now they need to hear that there constituents want this to happen. Yesterday, our members that reside in the caucus members’ districts got emails from TCASK updating them on the situation and urging them to contact their representatives regarding Harbison’s case. If you live in one of those districts and didn’t get an email, CALL YOUR REP! But also contact TCASK because we apparently either don’t have your email address or we don’t have you listed in the correct legislative district and we want to know that.
How could we do that, cull individuals by district out of a database of over 4000 supporters? The answer is Joe Irrera. Joe is a TCASK volunteer who has designed a database for us from scratch that allows us to sort our membership by legislative district (House or Senate) and then contact them by email, mail merge, or telephone. It’s pretty awesome. And Joe has worked like a mad man to help us get things running, coming into the office until 9 or 10 at night to set things up and help us with glitches. In fact, Joe will be in in a few hours over his lunch break to help us de-bug a few problems that we’ve been having with the database due to bellsouth. We’ve never had this sort of capability before and we plan to put it to good use over the course of the legislative session. And when we do halt executions in our state, Joe Irrera will have played an important part in making that happen.
If you watched the news this weekend, then you likely already know that on Saturday, Governor Phil Bredesen was inaugurated for his second four-year term as Governor. The inaugural ceremony was held Saturday morning on War Memorial Plaza and the evening included several celebratory balls in Nashville.
What you may not have known, is that the Governor’s inaugural committee mailed an unsolicited invitation to the inauguration and both balls to Joyce House, mother of Tennessee death row inmate Paul House. Interesting. All of this at the same time as the Governor has so far resisted the requests made to meet face to face regarding House’s case. And Joyce, though she bought a new dress and traveled to Nashville for the occasion, was unable to meet the Governor on Saturday either.
Why did the Governor’s committee invite Joyce to attend the inauguration of the man who supports the system that is aiming to kill her innocent and sick son? I don’t know. I only wish that the plans for the inauguration had included a receiving line of some sort. Of course, I don’t suppose that you would want to meet the woman whose son your state is trying to kill. It might make it harder to support the system.
A letter to the editor was posted recently in response to the blog entry entitled “Channel 2 Clues into the Truth.” The letter’s author, Gene Russell, outlines his reasons for supporting the death penalty. His concluding paragraph reads as follows:
For those who worry about killing an innocent person, please know that we lose the lives of innocent people regularly. Ask test pilots, policeman, fireman, and soldiers, all of whose lives are far, far more valuable than those of murderers.
This statement is so problematic that responding gives me pause. Certainly, innocent people die tragically all the time, including when they are wrongfully executed. The difference is that they are killed, not in the line of duty for which they valiantly volunteered, but instead by their own government and our tax dollars. Such a situation is appalling, and I am disturbed that anyone could attempt to justify it. If the innocent person was a family member of Mr. Russell’s, strapped down to a gurney, would his feelings be the same?
Furthermore, Mr. Russell’s statement that the lives of pilots, policeman, fireman, and soldiers are far more valuable than those of murderers undermines his entire argument. We are not talking about murderers but innocent people. Also, human beings should be wary of getting into the business of deciding whose life is valuable, regardless of what someone has done. Such is God’s job, not ours.
I dare say that Joyce House would disagree with Mr. Russell’s sentiment. Joyce is the mother of Paul House, a man who continues to sit on Tennessee’s death row for a crime of which the U.S. Supreme Court has said no reasonable juror would have ever convicted him given the new evidence in the case, including DNA evidence.
TCASK had hoped that the Governor would pardon Paul House and send him home for Christmas. Though Paul is still in prison, we continue to believe that Governor Bredesen will ultimately do the right and just thing, not only for Paul but for the citizens of Tennessee, and pardon Paul House. The Governor is preparing for his inauguration this weekend after being elected by an overwhelming majority of the state. Tennesseans believe the Governor to be fair and committed to the best interests of the people of Tennessee. No one’s interests are served with Paul House on death row. The Governor has a terrific opportunity to demonstrate the leadership of which he is surely capable by righting this egregious wrong and pardoning Paul House because it is the just thing to do. Innocent people should not be sacrificed to protect a broken system–never.
So this post probably should have happened yesterday, but we were waiting to find some pictures that never really materialized. Our apologies.
In any case, on Monday, TCASK took part in the annual celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a prophet of our time, whose message of nonviolence has been the foundation of many of our social movements. In Nashville, members of TCASK took part in the annual march to TSU, and then staffed a table and distributed literature to the hundreds of people present. TCASK also sported the coolest banners of the march, 7-foot tall banners bearing King’s message against capital punishment, thanks to the inspiration and hard work of James Staub and David Wright LaGrone! Shout out!
In Clarksville, I was privileged to attend the Clarksville NAACP Branch’s ceremony celebrating the life of Dr. King, and looking ahead to making his dream a reality in our own time. I was inspired to heard children read their essays on this subject, and to be recognized for the work that TCASK does amid that august assembly. TCASK has already been invited to speak at several community churches after my visit.
Dr. King’s life was a testament to the power of love over hate, and violence over non-violence. King was inspired by Ghandi’s old saying that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. As we gather, each year, to honor King, a man who died because of hate, we should reflect on our state’s own official policy of sanctifying violence and vengeance.
Over the weekend, WKRN here in Nashville, during part of a story on the second botched execution in a row in Iraq, did a piece on the use of the death penalty here in the U.S. The story featured a phone interview with Kelley Henry, of the Federal Public Defenders. Kelley was one of the attorneys for Sedley Alley, and she gave an excellent interview, hitting all the major points:
- Juries preferring life without parole to capital punishment
- The frighteningly high number of innocent people sentenced to death
- Tennessee’s odd position – a large death row but few executions.
Congrats to Kelley, a credit to her work and to all of us here in Tennessee. Check out the whole story here.