Archive for October, 2007
As you may know, the US Supreme Court has taken a case out of Kentucky to rule on the constitutionality of lethal injection. Clearly, there are major concerns with the current lethal injection protocols and I’m glad that the US Supreme Court has taken notice, read more about this HERE
. However, there were still many executions scheduled and the question in hand was whether or not these executions would proceed as we await the US Supreme Court. After a number of stays on the state level, we seem to have reached a more national answer.
“Moments before a Mississippi prisoner was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution on Tuesday evening and thus gave a nearly indisputable indication that a majority intends to block all executions until the court decides a lethal injection case from Kentucky next spring.”
-Linda Greenhouse, NY Times, read the article HERE
This is of course, fantastic news. It is important to reiterate though that the Supreme Court is ruling on the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocols, not the death penalty. But, time is time, and this latest ruling indicates that many death row inmates awaiting exeuction have been given the gift of a longer life. There is a massive amount of national attention and momentum on the death penalty. I feel the swell nationally and here in Tennessee. It wasn’t long ago that Gov. Bredesen commuted the sentence of Michael Boyd from death to life in prison. The death penalty is also being scrutinized to a degree not seen in some time, nationally and in Tennssee (study committee). There is a lot to celebrate with, but we cannot become complacent. The Supreme Court will rule and inevitably executions will be back on…and the aboltionist movement will be ready!
In a report released on Sunday, the American Bar Association stated that the nation’s death penalty system should be halted until vital improvements are made. The report is based on research in eight states, examining the “fairness and accuracy” of death penalty systems. In every state studied, serious flaws were discovered.
The ABA released its Tennessee Assessment on the Death Penalty last spring and of 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate system, Tennessee fully complied with only 7 for which data was available.
Stephen Hanlon, chairman of the ABA”s Death Penalty Moratorium Project, told ABC news, “In determining who gets the death penalty, all too frequently, it seems to be not the person who has committed the worst crime, but the person who has the worst lawyer.” Read more
Ricky Thompson, a mentally ill man who had been on Tennessee’s death row since 1992, died at Centennial Medical Center last Wednesday from natural causes. Thompson’s death sentence had recently been overturned by the state appellate court which ruled that it was obvious the Thompson, a schizophrenic who was in and out of hospitals most of his life, suffered from mental illness. The state was awaiting an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court which kept Thompson on death row.
Thompson killed his wife in 1989 after she took their infant out of the home during an argument. He shot her in the back while she was holding the baby–an unspeakable tragedy for any family to endure. And yet, a deeper issue to be addressed is whether those with mental illness are afforded the treatment that they need in our state. Many do not have access to the mental health care that is so critical to avoiding tragedies such as this one. Ricky Thompson is yet another example of what can happen if we as a society do not invest more in our mental health care systems in order to reach very ill people in time to prevent such violence.
Ricky Thompson’s life was a struggle as he lived in a schizophrenic world, leading him to commit a horrific act. He had continuing health problems while on death row which ultimately led to his death. There are many people just like Ricky Thompson filling up our jails and prisons while not getting the care that they need. We can either choose to make mental health care a priority and spend the money to treat people, or we can spend the money to incarcerate those with mental illness after a crime has been committed. Ricky Thompson’s life is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. I am grateful that Ricky is free of his illness and his imprisonment and hope that his family can find some peace as well. Read more here.
Beep beep beep, the alarm goes off at 3:45 a.m. Some memories flash back into my mind. The first is my mom waking me up around this time for a field trip to Philadelphia from Northern Virginia in the 5th grade…I drew a picture of Independence Hall as part of my report. The next memory is of getting up this early to cram for a midterm in my Globalization and Economic Justice course at Arizona State…which I totally aced. Now I am creating a new memory, I am venturing to Knoxville to speak to masters students there studying social work. Fortunately, I was picked up at my house by Jennifer Scruggs, Project Coordinator for the National Association of Social Workers Tennessee (NASW) and TCASK board member. “Hey, you need to stay up and talk to me and keep me awake,” she asserts. I assure her that I can do this, or show her where we can get some coffee. After the purchase of a large cup and 15 minutes of driving East I am snoring in the passenger seat.
The first class is small, a little sleepy eyed, but interested in what we have to say. Jennifer talks about the value of being a member of NASW because it will allow you to dictate which issues NASW decides to take on. Jennifer also promotes Social Worker day on the Hill coming up this Spring. She expects around 800 participants, an impressive goal, one I’m sure she’ll achieve. I spoke to students about the death penalty and issues within capital punishment that relate to social work. Such issues include mental illness, racism, and the social justice perspective overall. I was thorouhgly impressed with the College of Social Work overall and their mission to promote social justice and social change and to end discrimination, opression, poverty and other forms of social injustice. Students in both classes were engaged in what I had to say, but suprisingly, no one had any contrary arguments to make. Regadless, I believe that many of the students I spoke to will be attending our Knoxville TCASK meeting on November 5th, 7:00 p.m. at the Golden Roast coffee shop.
After a long day of organizing in Knoxville we departed home, and of course, I took the duty of driving. I was happy to return home to Nashville, but also anxious to return to Knoxville soon to continue building the foundation of a sustainable chapter in Eastern Tennessee.
I spent several hours on Monday and Tuesday of this week at Legislative Plaza as the study committee on the administration of the death penalty began its year long examination of Tennessee’s death penalty. Even in just two days of meetings, so many issues were raised with the current system that this distinguished group will have a very difficult time finishing their work in a year.
For example, the Comptroller’s office testified that there is little accurate data in Tennessee to understand the real cost of the death penalty to tax payers of this state. The Comptroller attempted a study a few years ago but readily admitted to the committee that much of the data that they needed to perform a thorough and reliable study was simply unavailable. In other words, Tennessee has no idea of the amount of money that the death penalty is costing.
Even more problematic, the lack of adequate defense counsel for those charged with a capital crime was a recurrent theme. The legislators seemed shocked to learn that almost no one on Tennessee’s death row could afford an attorney at the time of their trial. Furthermore, the lack of resources, extreme caseloads, and lack of compensation for defense attorneys are all very serious issues in determining whether or not someone gets an adequate defense in court.
Other issues which were raised: the lack of a true proportionality review in Tennessee, the lack of specific guidelines for District Attorneys to use in determining when to seek the death penalty, the economic, racial, and geographic disparities in who receives the death penalty, and of course, the issues with the state’s lethal injection protocol.
All of this information was revealed in only two days of testimony. Of course, we at TCASK have been highlighting all of these problems for years and are so grateful that this legislative committee is taking the time to truly listen and consider the reasons why this public policy is so broken. We will continue to follow this work of this committee closely as the members reconvene in the next couple of weeks. I am very impressed with the committee and the seriousness with which they are taking this work. Hopefully, much more will be revealed as the they dig deeper into the death penalty allowing the public to get a better picture of just how broken the system is. Read more here.
Today as I was perusing some of the reader comments around articles surrounding the study committee, I saw that one individual had this quote in their signature:
“Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”
-J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord Of the Rings, Book Four, Chapter One)
I hope that this quote isn’t perceived as an anti-death penalty quote…it’s from the Lord of the Rings folks. But the wisdom this quote emanates should be taken seriously. In this modern age of peace and peril, of violence and virtuousness, and of justice and injustice, who are we to decide who lives and dies? Currently, it is the constitution and the law that doles out this justice and lays out the guidelines for capital punishment. However, I highly doubt that the founders of this great nation and writers of such great documents as the Declaration of the Independence and the US Constitution could foresee the problems today’s society faces. Even the wise cannot see all ends.
One issue that comes to mind specifically is lethal injection. The original constitution in the 8th amendment bars “cruel and unusual punishment.” I cannot stress enough that the challenges facing the lethal injection protocols are about upholding the US Constitution. Even in the 18th century (a long time ago–relative to US history at least) our leaders had the foresight to state in our law that cruel and unusual punishment must be unlawful in order to deem the United States a democratic nation. No one can see into the future or travel into the future (unless you are Marty McFly) but we can certainly learn from the past. This is why these challenges are so important–not only to the inmates awaiting execution by an old method (lethal injection protocols have remained virtually the same for 30 years), but also to those that desire to uphold the constitution and what that document means to the country. I hope folks can see that as the primary concern, rather than saving murderers from execution.
Also, the quote holds one other lesson I find valuable in this movement. Violence is pervasive–for that matter death is pervasive. My grandmother recently passed from cancer, would my pain have been more severe if she had been murdered? Perhaps, yes, as murder is an untimely act that is purely dictated by the murderer. However, as time passed, and let’s say that it’s 10 years into the future after my grandmother’s murder (just supposing). My grandmother is still in her grave– would you see any value in those past 10 years to desiring justice for one other actor in her death as a positive force in my life? Would the desire for more violence help me grieve? Would the desire for the execution of one man help me grow as a person? Would the desire for the removal of someone deemed unfit for society, an outcast, help me become a positive and contributing force in my society? It is worth noting though that some folks truly desire retribution for the offender and I respect their desire fully, I just hope they see that there are options other than further violence.
Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them?
Today, October 15th 2007 marks a historic day for the state of Tennessee. Today, the commission created by SB 1911 to study the death penalty in depth over the course of a year convenes for the first time. The study commission is the first of its kind of any Southern state and is indicative of the growing momentum that the anti-death penalty movement is currently experiencing. However, the sponsor of the commission, Senator Doug Jackson from Dickson is for the death penalty? How can this be you might ask? Well, the Senator from Dickson understands that despite his moral or personal feelings towards the death penalty, the troubled public policy requires a comprehensive study.
“The state should exercise the utmost care in matters of life and death”
“New methods and technologies for determining guilt and innocence have shed new light on the causes of wrongful convictions”
“The state must ensure a criminal justice system that is impartial, equitable, competent, accurate, and meets the needs of victims’ family members”
The above statements are in the beginning of the bill which can be read HERE
. They all seem to be highly positive notions but beg the question, if these are being addressed, what were we doing before? Regardless, this one year commission has high hopes and is made up of a fair representation of all the realms of justice. The 16 member committee has members from the legislature, Tennessee Bar Association, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, District Attorneys General Conference, District Public Defenders Conference, Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, Tennessee Justice Project, National Association on Mental Illness Tennessee, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and You Have the Power.
The commission meetings are open to the public and begin meeting today at 1:00 p.m.
Yesterday the staff of TCASK took a trip to Chattanooga to meet with our main contact there, Tim McDonald. Chattanooga TCASK was at one point an active chapter that met regularly and held events…it is TCASK’s hope return Chattanooga to that status and I believe it is highly probable that we will. Chattanooga itself is a charming riverside city that is vibrant and full of history. Stacy, Tim and I had lunch at Southern Star where I had a classic southern meal: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried zucchini (yum), and a baked apple. Over the down home cooking we talked about some of the challenges and interesting aspects of Chattanooga in organizing around the death penalty. For example, the main newspaper of Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Times Free Press is a combination of two newspapers. The Times half was founded by the original founders of the New York Times. Furthermore, the newspaper now has two editorial staffs–and two editorial pages! Fascinating huh? The Times half are against the death penalty while the Free Press half are death penalty supporters. As always, we are looking to work with students so Stacy and I traversed the University Tennessee Chattanooga campus and paid quick visits to the varying campus ministries. We also have a fantastic supporter amongst the UTC faculty, Shela VanNess and I look forward to speaking to some young “Mocs.”
On September 30, 2007 University of Memphis football player Taylor Bradford was murdered on the U of M campus. My heart dropped to the floor when I read this story initially for so many reasons. I love football and as a spectator I believe the players love it just as much as I do or even more. To make it to the elite D1 college level is an amazing feat, regardless of what position you play or how much playing time you receive. One must make incredible sacrifices to get to that phase in their playing career and surely Taylor made those sacrifices. To make it that far and be a well liked player on the team only to be shot and murdered is a travesty. It seems that violence on campuses, college, high school, or even younger is not going away. Violence seems to find a way into every nook an cranny of our society–especially striking those in a position to elevate and transform themselves into a positive force as Bradford did.
Suspects have been apprehended and the district attorney’s office has stated it will seek the death penalty. This statement is the crux of the anti-death penalty movement. How can I denounce the DA’s actions without devaluing Bradford’s murder, and for that matter, violence and the victims it creates? I juggle with this issue constantly–it might be perceived publicly that because we fight against the death penalty that we are “pro murderer” and “anti-victim” and this could not be further from the truth. I believe that for the very reason I juggle with how to express my emotions towards the murder of Bradford in balance with fighting against the death penalty is when abolitionists are at their finest. We value LIFE, period. And I do not believe that further violence will bring resolution or act as a deterrent in this already hyper violent society. Do not confuse this with apathy or inaction. Fighting against the death penalty is about the promotion of peace and perhaps a greater question to look at the overall systemic and structural problems that are at the foundation of a murder. Guns, drugs, poverty, domestic violence, alcohol, education, health care…we live in a complex world, one with complex problems. Who out there believes that the killing of one murderer for a particularly heinous crime will serve a calculated purpose in this complex society? I sure don’t and as always, my belief about the death penalty being mostly about retribution is affirmed. All that we are left with is another dead body.
The Kite Runner
I recently finished Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. The novel is set in Afghanistan and America and tells the story of two young boys and how the privilege afforded by birth acts as a polarizing road map to their futures. In reading about Hassan (servant) and Amir (privileged) I saw a little of myself in the two young boys. In Hassan I saw in myself the inquisitive optimist who is sometimes naive to the way things are or “should be.” Hassan stands up for himself and Amir regardless of his lower class billing and has a heart as pure as glacial waters. In one of my favorite lines, Amir describes Hassan by saying “That’s the thing about people that always mean what they say, they think everyone else does too.” Amir is intelligent and complex and often times angry at his Dad for not paying attention to him as much as Hassan. Amir believes the only way he’ll become closer to his father is by great acts or achievements. However, Amir is a coward and while the privilege he has been granted means he can read and write, the illiterate Hassan is a better person overall.
However, Amir does change, and around the age of 21 or so, a friend of his fathers is asking him if he knew that Baba, his father, is a great man. Amir says yes, that his father is a great man. The friend replies that because you realize that your father is a great man, you are half way to becoming a great man yourself. Upon reading this, I immediately thought of my father and some of the battles we waged, the victories we celebrated together, but most of all the lessons he taught me through providing for his family. I always knew that my father was a good provider and he paid for my college education, but at the age of 23, being on my own, looking towards the future, I realized that my father is a great man. I hope that I too am half way to becoming a man.
At the student conference this past weekend, I had the pleasure of spending the weekend with Vicki Scheiber. Vicki’s daughter was raped and murdered while a student at the Wharton School at the University of Penn. Her journey of forgiveness weaves a tale depicting the multitude of problems in our justice system–including but certainly not limited to the death penalty. The problems she was forced to participate as well as her unwavering devotion to God, lead her to actively seek forgiveness and a non-death penalty sentence for her daughter’s murderer. Vicki is a board member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and their executive director Renny Cushing issued the following statement today, on World Day Against the Death Penalty.
Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is an organization of family members of homicide victims and family members of people who have been executed. As survivors with a direct stake in the death penalty debate, and as people who believe in the value of basic human rights principles, we join today in the call for a worldwide moratorium on executions.
The most basic of human rights, the right to life, is violated both by homicide and by execution. We call today for a consistent human rights ethic in response to violence: let us not respond to one human rights violation with another human rights violation. Let us recognize that justice for victims is not achieved by taking another life.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of those lives by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.
Now, almost sixty years later, let us recognize that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty should not be permissible under any nation or regime. We call for a moratorium on the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.
Today, on World Day Against the Death Penalty, the United Nations General Assembly is considering a resolution that will take us one step closer to fulfilling the aspiration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As victims, we urge the members of the General Assembly to adopt the UN resolution for a universal moratorium on executions.
I get excited when I see institutions such as the United Nations getting involved in this movement. Although the death penalty is a state by state issue and TCASK is focused on abolition and reform in Tennessee, American states, and the entire country itself are not immune to judgment and opinion–no one is immune from that. I think it is always important to know the pulse of those around in order to give validity to the actions being taken. When almost no Western-industrialized nations and none of the European Union nations have the death penalty one must question the purpose it is serving in the United States. Are we so arrogant a people and a nation to ignore what the world thinks of us? Perhaps, but maybe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can change that.
On Saturday, high school and college students from all over Tennessee gathered at MTSU to spend a full day learning about the death penalty and how they, as young people, can affect change to end this failed public policy. Students from schools as diverse as University of the South, Tennessee State University, Rhodes College, Lipscomb University, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Memphis, and Middle Tennessee State University, as well as high school students from both Nashville and Memphis, joined together for a day of learning and action against the death penalty.
The students attended a variety of workshops including workshops addressing race and the death penalty, victims’ experiences of the death penalty system, and also the risk of wrongful convictions. TCASK was honored to welcome Rep. Larry and Mrs. Johnnie Turner; Clemmie Greenlee, the mother of a murder victim who opposes the death penalty; and Joyce House, the mother of Paul House who has spent 22 years on Tennessee’s death row for a crime the evidence overwhelmingly shows that he didn’t commit, who all assisted in leading workshops. The students were riveted by the facts concerning the death penalty and by the powerful firsthand stories from the people who have lived them.
Our keynote speaker for the day, Vicki Schieber, shared her story of loss and forgiveness as she spoke of her daughter Shannon’s brutal rape and murder as a first year grad student in Philadelphia. Vicki’s journey has been a very painful one, and she has dedicated her life to speaking out against the death penalty as a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. Her family has suffered tremendously as a result of her daughter’s murder, but Vicki firmly believes that seeking the death penalty does not honor her daughter’s memory nor does it do anything to heal. Her healing has come from her faith and her family, and her daughter’s murderer is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, where he can no longer hurt any other women. Her honesty and courage in sharing the most horrible thing that has ever happened to her and her journey to healing was a humbling experience for all who were privileged to hear it. We also learned that Rep.Turner, who has been devoted to the cause of abolition in Tennessee for years, lost a brother to a brutal murder just 5 years ago. This loss is very painful for him to share, and he continues to struggle with it. However, we are even more grateful to him and in awe of his continued work to end the death penalty, considering how personal the issue has become for him and his family.
The day concluded with students learning about how to plan events and create opportunities for action on their campuses in order to raise awareness and to activate others to work for change. Our former Associate Director, Alex Wiesendanger, flew in from Chicago to assist in this training as well as former student representative to the Board, Lillian Siman who flew in from Boston, and Kathryn Lea, current Board member who drove in from Knoxville–thanks to all for your efforts to make this day such a powerful one! Also, thanks to Isaac for his planning and leadership of the event.
We hope that as part of the follow-up to this conference, students will be empowered to plan an event or action on their campuses, such as a write-a-thon for International Death Penalty Abolition day on March 1. I was so impressed with the young people who devoted an entire Saturday to this issue and who are rising to the challenge of doing something about it. I believe their energy and commitment is contagious and hope that others will join with them in this work to honor life by abolishing the death penalty.