Archive for January, 2008
On Wednesday, Jan 30, Rev. Stacy Rector and I were planning on speaking together at Northside Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, TN. Stacy would be handling the majority of the talk including the Biblical reflection of why the death penalty was wrong. I would be working a shorter segment, talking about TCASK and how folks could get involved. I strode into office yesterday morning excited about traveling to a new city, making new friends, and napping as Stacy drove (she likes to drive) to Cleveland and back. This excitement quickly turned into nervous anticipation as Stacy informed me that she would not be traveling to Cleveland and that I would be doing the talk alone.
When I talk to people about what I do for TCASK, often time people inquire about my involvement with the Church or if I am part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program. I do have involvement with a Church, but that wasn’t the reason I was brought onto TCASK. I have been working now for TCASK for over 7 months and while I have done many talks in a variety of settings, I have never led a Biblical talk/discussion solo. So as you may guess, I was definitely nervous. Stacy assured me that we would have time to prepare and that if I was humble about my experience and spoke slowly, the talk would go swimmingly.
I left Nashville just after 2:00 p.m. and arrived at Northside Presbyterian at 6:00 (you lose an hour traveling to Cleveland). We had a scrumptious supper of hot dogs, chili, baked beans, chips, cole slaw, and pie. Following dinner, I was on. Any apprehension I had was quickly dissolved as I saw the smiling faces looking back at me. It was exciting to speak to these folks on the death penalty on a level that they placed the highest regard. I was elated. Afterwards, I asked those present to sign up for the TCASK mailing list and to write a letter to Senator Dewayne Bunch. The purpose behind the letters was to let Sen. Bunch know that there were folks amongst his constituency that were against the death penalty and were in support of the work that he is doing as a member of the study committee. Almost everyone there signed up for our mailing list and I left with four hand written letters to the Senator.
The story that epitomizes how we would like folks to think about the death penalty in the Biblical sense comes from John 8: 2-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. As a mob is preparing to stone this woman to death, which they had every right to do as law abiding citizens, Jesus intervenes. He addressed the crowd, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The death penalty isn’t about those that are on death row and the terrible sins they have committed. Instead, it is about who we are, as people of faith, and how we respond faithfully in very painful situations.
The talk was a success and I now feel confident to do this again. Working for TCASK has presented me with many challenges and put me into situations of maximum uncomfort–I couldn’t ask for a more amazing experience right out of my undergraduate education.
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.
Free Paul House Rally Tomorrow (Friday)
An Innocent Man on Death Row
- When: Friday, January 25th, Be there by 11:15 a.m.
- Where: In front of the office of the Attorney General (John Sevier Building), 425 5th Ave. N., around 5th and Charlotte
- Who: TCASK with Joyce House (mother of Paul House), Rep. Mike Turner (Nashville) and other TN state legislators, local religious leaders, and musical guest Julie Lee of Old Black Kettle
Tell Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to drop the state’s frivolous appeal in the Paul House case (read this great article in the Nashville Scene) and to abide by Judge Harry Mattice’s ruling: either retry House or let him go. Paul House should finally be released after serving over 20 years on Tennessee’s death row for a crime that new evidence, including DNA, shows he did not commit. Justice delayed is justice denied. Lets get as many people there as we can. Tell your friends, neighbors, congregations, clubs, etc. Let your voice be heard!
For more information contact TCASK at (615) 256-3906 or our Field Organizer’s mobile phone at (615) 521-9985, or email us at email@example.com.
As I was reading the Tennessean yesterday, I came across an article on the lethal injection debate. Governor Bredesen stated that he believes the state needs to wait on the Supreme Court decision before making a move to execute anyone. I couldn’t agree more. He goes on to say that moving to a one drug protocol would invite years of litigation before anyone could be executed. I am sure that there would be litigation, but I would only be speculating, as is the Governor, about how long that litigation would take.
However, he then states, “just remember that among the strongest proponents of the one- drug protocol are people who are adamantly opposed to the death penalty.” Huh? That’s odd…I thought that people who are adamantly opposed to the death penalty are just that–opposed to the death penalty, regardless of the way the penalty is carried out. Frankly, there is no “good” way to kill another human being. The fact that the three drug cocktail utilizes a drug outlawed for use on animals and not only might, but has, inflicted horrific torture on those who are being executed is the issue with the three-drug protocol. The reason anyone, for or against the death penalty, wants it changed is so that the state is not torturing its own citizens to death.
I also find it interesting that the Tennessee Department of Corrections committee given the task of making recommendations to the Commissioner and the Governor back in May 2007 originally recommended that the state go to the one-drug protocol. Is the Governor implying that all the TDOC committee members are opposed to the death penalty? Also, the legislative study committee had a lengthy discussion of the lethal injections protocols during one of their session, and pro-death penalty legislators as well as at least one prosecutor spoke in favor of the one drug protocol. Hmmm…I’m confused.
I would hope that the Governor would stop blaming those of us who oppose executions for the current lethal injection issues. Sadly, folks who are supportive of the death penalty brought this issue upon themselves, and the rest of us for that matter. But, if the Governor is looking for good ideas as to how to solve the current lethal injection issue, I have one: abolish the death penalty.
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.
The ACLU Death Penalty Policy director of Northern California, Natasha Minsker, sent out an email today stating that she had asked their members to send letters to the editor of the Sacramento Bee about the paper’s coverage of the first California Commission hearing on the death penalty. The article failed to mention any murder victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty even though some of them testified at the hearing. Instead, the paper quoted a family member who is in favor of capital punishment who did not even testify.
A member of the ACLU group created a youtube video in response to Natasha’s request, allowing for those murder victims’ families who testified and who oppose the death penalty to have their voices heard in the public as well. The video is very powerful, and I hope you will check it out.
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?
Dwight Lewis of the Tennessean has written another terrific article covering the case of Paul House.
Read it HERE!
It begins with…”Sixty-six-year-old Joyce House is in a waiting game, and it’s no fun. In fact, “it’s hell,” she says.
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.
Today, the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on whether or not the current protocols of lethal injection are in violation of the 8th amendment of the Constitution which bans cruel and unusual punishment. The Justices are not being asked to rule on the constitutionality of the death penalty which was determined constitutional three decades ago. A wave of cases revolving around lethal injection across the United States in lower courts has piqued the attention of the highest court in the land. One of the key rulings was here in Tennessee in which Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that the current lethal injection protocols were unconstitutional. However, it was a case in Kentucky, Baez v. Rees, that made its way to Washington D.C. Supporters of the Kentucky petitioners stated that the current method poses an “unnecessary risk of pain and suffering.”
The Knoxville Sentinel has an AP article covering the case and also includes a poll asking readers if they believe in capital punishment. Read the article HERE. If you could take one second and visit the above link and vote NO, you can make your voice heard. The article highlights one of the most confusing aspects of this case and the challenges being posed to capital punishment.
“But when the justices return from their holiday break and hear arguments today in a lethal injection case from Kentucky, their questions are unlikely to focus on whether capital punishment or even the method of lethal injection is right or wrong.
The two death row inmates whose challenge is before the court are not asking to be spared execution or death by injection. Their argument, at its most basic, is that there are ways to get the job done relatively pain-free.”
The last blog post by Stacy highlighted the confusion that many have, including our own state’s legislators. Lethal injection is still a viable method for execution–once the protocols are again deemed constitutional. I believe the hope of the US Supreme Court is to ensure that lethal injection is in fact lethal. I don’t think that is much to ask for as a civilized Western nation in the year 2008.