Archive for July, 2008
“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.
As most of you are probably aware, yesterday during a church youth performance of “Annie”, a gunman opened fired at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, killing 2 and wounding 7. The first to be killed was Greg McKendry, a longtime church member and usher. McKendry stepped in front of the gunman and took the blast to protect those around him. The other victim, Linda Kraeger, died a few hours after the shooting. The gunman was tackled by John Bohstedt who was playing Daddy Warbucks in the musical and wrestled to the ground by other church members.
Jim D. Adkisson was arrested on the scene. Investigators believe that the congregation was targeted because of its support of liberal social policies. Adkisson had written a 4 page letter found in his vehicle. The police spokesperson commented that “it appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that and his stated hatred of the liberal movement.”
Our Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers around the state are deeply committed to social justice and respect for human rights. TCASK works closely with Tennessee UU churches as many of their members are abolitionists and are active participants in the struggle to end the death penalty in Tennessee. The Unitarian Universalist Church has continually called for the abolition of the death penalty in its General Assemblies.
At this most difficult time for the people of Tennessee Valley UU, our thoughts and prayers are with them as they grieve these senseless deaths and begin to process what has occurred. The world continues to be a violent, unpredictable place, and I hope that the folks at Tennessee Valley UU can find some sense of peace in the aftermath of this tragedy through the love and prayers of so many around the state and the nation.
Read more here.
Yesterday the Promptness subcommittee of the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee met for four hours discussing issues from the length of time taken for post-conviction proceedings to exempting those with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
A resolution was introduced by Verna Wyatt of “You Have the Power”, a Tennessee victims’ right organization, which encouraged Tennessee’s judicial branch to comply with a current Tennessee law stating that post-conviction procedures should be kept to a one year time limit. Wyatt’s concerns are valid ones. She stated that if victims’ families are told that these proceedings will be complete in a year’s time and instead they go on for several years, victims’ families suffer great pain and frustration.
Libby Sykes of the Administrative Office of the Courts as well as two judges–Judge Don Harris and Judge Bill Acree–spoke to why a year’s time limit is completely unrealistic and cannot be followed if post-conviction proceedings are to be meaningful. The overarching theme of the conversation was that if defense attorneys had the necessary resources at the trial level, the post-conviction proceedings would need not be so lengthy. Currently, so many defendants who get to post-conviction have almost no defense at trial. Therefore, the post-conviction defenders’ office has to start from scratch to mount a defense for them which can take a long time.
Judge Harris cited the case of Tennessee death row inmate Gussie Vann who will be granted a new trial because his defense attorneys didn’t do enough to fight claims that he raped and murdered his 8-year-old daughter in 1992. Vann asked for a new trial during his last court appearance in McMinn County in September. During the hearing, forensic experts testified there were flaws in the state’s handling of evidence following Vann’s daughter’s death, which was originally reported as an accidental hanging. The experts said there were no signs of sexual abuse as originally reported in the autopsy prepared by former medical examiner Ronald Toolsie of Bradley County. Judge Harris stated in his testimony that this post-conviction process had taken nine years to complete but, had it not been thorough and meaningful, the state would have already executed a man who is innocent of rape and probably of murder. However, all the Committee members agreed that victims’ families should be given a more realistic time line that spares them unnecessary frustration and that a change in the current law is needed.
Later, Sita Diehl of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Tennessee and a member of the Study Committee gave a presentation on legislation she would like to propose which would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death sentence. This legislation would not affect convictions but only take death off the table for those who met the strict guidelines of severe mental illness, which includes people suffering delusions, hallucinations, or who are completely unaware of their actions because of disassociation.
Diehl asked the question, “If those under the age of 18 and with mental retardation can no longer be sentenced to death because they cannot fully appreciate the consequences of their actions, how can people with severe mental illness, who are totally out of touch with reality, continue to receive the death sentence?
She also highlighted the fact that by removing these most severely ill people from the possibility of a death sentence, victims’ families would be spared years of hearings and appeals on competency issues while taxpayers would save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Diehl referenced the case of Richard Taylor, a former inmate on Tennessee’s death row who killed a correctional officer in 1981 when he was taken off his anti-psychotic medication. His case was finally settled in March 2008 after he agreed to a life sentence. In just one year of litigation on his case, nearly $100,000 was spent by the state on experts. That is just in one year! Imagine how much money the state spent attempting to get the death sentence for this man with severe mental illness over the past 27 years, only to get a life sentence in the end. All of this time and money could have been saved if Taylor had not be eligible for death in the first place.
This subcommittee is examining some real common sense ideas that could streamline the process, make the system less congested and less frustrating for everyone, and truly help our Tennessee system to be far more fair and accurate than it currently is. We hope that some real change will come from all the work of this Committee and that Tennesseans will see how such reform can benefits all of us. Regardless of how we feel about the death penalty, we all want a system that treats everyone fairly and that gets it right. Until we address all these issues, the system will never be just.
Deborah Hastings, an AP National Writer has written a fantastic and comprehensive article covering the case of Paul House.
Read it by clicking HERE.
“Paul Gregory House has known many prisons. Death row. His own body ravaged by multiple sclerosis. A long, legal limbo that traps him between judges who’ve said he may be innocent — and state prosecutors who’ve refused to give up.”
“Phillips still considers House a menace.
“The fact that he has MS and is confined to a wheelchair does not protect the community,” Phillips said. “He is a person who tricks others into positions of vulnerability.”
Joyce House doesn’t believe he will ever abandon the case against her son: “He just don’t want to admit he’s made a mistake.”
The federal public defender says that is the reason Phillips won’t let go.
“How can you live with yourself if you admit that you took away the last healthy years of a man’s life?” Kissinger said. “That’s a big burden.”
The ACLU released documents on Thursday that Maryland state police went undercover to spy on war protesters and anti-death penalty activists during 2005-2006. Documents show that during this year covert agents infiltrated groups like the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty as well as the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row prisoner in Maryland. Some of the activists were then listed on terrorist watch lists.
To watch video interviews with some of the activists involved click here.
Yesterday the Fairness subcommittee of the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty met for over three hours as they discussed the problems with defense representation in capital cases in Tennessee. The American Bar Association Report on Fairness and Accuracy of Tennessee’s Death Penalty System released in 2007 states that “Tennessee’s statutory qualification requirements for capital defense attorneys fall far short of the requirements of the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases and are insufficient to ensure qualified counsel for every death-sentenced inmate.”
Given this reality, the Fairness Committee is seeking to find a way to ensure that defendants are given adequate representation when faced with a capital charge, particularly if they are indigent. To that end, the Committee heard testimony concerning the creation of an independent authority in Tennessee to oversee capital defense representation from Ty Hunter. Hunter is the executive director of a similar authority in North Carolina called the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (NCIDS), created by the NC legislature in 2000.
When asked what North Carolina’s motivation was in creating such an authority, Hunter responded that the first motivation was the lack of effective management of the state’s resources for indigent defense. Previously in North Carolina, (and currently in Tennessee) the system was very fragmented making fiscal accountability difficult. The second motivation was a very real concern about the quality of representation that poor people were receiving in court. Both motivations are also big concerns in Tennessee’s current system.
Additionally, such an independent authority could provide Tennessee’s system with an organizational structure for easier accountability, ensure qualification standards for defense attorneys working on capital cases, monitor defense services, and provide training for attorneys. The advantage that Tennessee has over North Carolina is our state’s public defender system which would work in conjunction with this independent authority. This authority would allow public defenders more flexibility in dealing with capital cases and would help to relieve public defender caseloads while ensuring that indigent defendants were appointed competent counsel.
A sentiment which was repeated again and again yesterday in the subcommittee, made up of both prosecutors and defense attorneys, was that lawyers on both sides of any case want to try cases with other attorneys who are competent. It serves neither side to have an incompetent attorney involved because of the amount of time the trial ultimately will take as well as the numerous appeals that will certainly be forthcoming if a client does not receive good representation. Another important point is that with good defense representation, defendants are more likely to have confidence in their attorneys making them more likely to take pleas, sparing victims’ family members the pain of a trial while saving taxpayers lots of money.
The creation of an independent body to oversee capital case defense in Tennessee seems like an idea that anyone concerned about fairness would welcome. Other states, such as North Carolina, have experienced great results with such an authority. I hope as this subcommittee becomes clearer about what might be best for Tennessee, that lawmakers will pass legislation that moves Tennessee in the right direction. Though we at TCASK wish to see a system where no one would ever face a death sentence, until we arrive at abolition, we must support any steps which make the system more fair.
Yesterday in a surprise move, District Attorney Paul Phillips stated that if Paul House’s DNA is not found on a hair discovered in Carolyn Muncey’s hand following her murder, he will consider dropping the charges against House. If the DNA from the hair or other evidence belongs to a third party, Phillips says he will not prosecute.
In an interview with a Knoxville news station, Joyce House asks the million dollar question, “If the state has had this hair all along, why hasn’t it been tested before now?” The state has been sitting on evidence for 23 years that could have exonerated House, and yet, it has done nothing, except fight tooth and nail to keep any evidence which casts doubt on the conviction out of the courts.
Sadly, in this case as in many other death rows cases, the emphasis seems to be on getting and maintaining a conviction, even if an innocent person is convicted. Where is the justice in such a system?
I hope that the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty does a thorough examination of the Paul House case and how such a travesty could have occurred. This case highlights the reasons why such a Committee must do the hard work of examining this system and not succumb to any political pressures which might want to see this study quickly end as demonstrated in the battle to get the study extended. Tennesseans deserve better. Lives are at stake.
I cannot express in words my gratitude to all of you who have followed the Paul House case over the years–who have written letters, made phone calls, sent financial support, attended events, and prayed for justice to be done in this case. All of us received a wonderful gift for our July 4th this year, when on Wednesday of last week, House was finally released.
As I stated to many reporters who were at the prison that day, this ordeal provided justice for no one–certainly not for Paul House but not for Carolyn Muncey either. For 23 years her family has lived with the reality that the wrong man might be paying for a crime he didn’t commit while the real perpetrator continued to be at large. Sadly, the state of Tennessee has demonstrated in this case, particularly since the 1990’s when DNA testing confirmed Paul House did not rape Carolyn Muncey, that seeking justice was secondary to maintaining a conviction, and thus 23 years later, here we are.
I keep going back to Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are finally seeing that bend after 23 long years as Paul House is one step closer to freedom. Our sincere hope is that Paul House is on his way to becoming the 130th person nationwide to be exonerated and released from death row.
I have talked to Joyce House several times since Paul’s release, and she is practically giddy every time I speak to her. Paul has enjoyed her home cooking and as a real movie buff, has been watching movies constantly. The family had a wonderful July 4 with ribs, fireworks, and time together.
Joyce told me today that Paul asked for pizza the other night for dinner. She gave him a plate with two pieces on it. When he finished the pizza, his brother asked him if he wanted more. Paul replied, “I can’t. We only get one serving.” His brother said, “No, you used to only get one serving. Now you get as much as you want.” So Paul had another slice!
Now that Paul is home, Joyce faces a new challenge: health care. Between now and the end of the trial, Joyce must shoulder the expense of Paul’s care. Currently, he has no medical insurance, and the costs of his care are extremely high.
TCASK is still planning to hold a fundraiser sometime in the next couple of months to raise money to help Joyce out. If anyone would like to contribute to his care now, please send checks to TCASK, P.O. Box 120552, Nashville, TN 37212 with “Paul House” in the memo line. We will keep you updated as plans are made for the fundraiser.
To see Paul at home, click here.
At approximately 10:00 a.m. this morning, Paul House was released from Lois M. Deberry Special Needs Facility. An anonymous donor provided Joyce House, Paul’s mother, with the bail money in order for Paul to be released into the custody of his mother. (Paul and Joyce above, Bill Waugh / AP)
Click HERE to see pictures taken at Paul’s release by Harry and Karan Simpson.
for a Knoxville article and video coverage
featuring 5 separate videos covering Paul House’s release including: coverage from the actual release, Paul at home, Joyce interview, Stacy Rector interview, and the House family reunited.
This is a great day for Paul House, Joyce House, and all those who have worked to give Paul the justice he deserves. Thanks to all who volunteered, held signs, made phone calls, met with legislators, sent e-mails, wrote letters, wore T-shirts, and advocated for Paul House. Joyce and Paul are so very thankful for all that you have done. Although justice has not fully been served, and Paul has not won his innocence, you can rest assured that he is in the comfort of his mother’s home and in his mother’s care.
TCASK will continue to keep you updated about Paul’s case and a fundraiser we are planning to raise funds for Paul’s medical costs amongst other things.
Yesterday the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice created by the California State Senate released its landmark report on the death penalty. Their findings reveal that California’s death penalty system is excessively costly and riddled with problems leading to lack of fairness and wrongful convictions.
Currently in Tennessee, the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, created by the Tennessee legislature in 2007, is also looking at many issues with Tennessee’s death penalty including problems with accuracy, fairness, how those with mental illness and mental retardation are treated within the system, as well as the services provided for both victims’ families and families of those who are executed. Thus far the Committee has uncovered many flaws in the Tennessee system similar to those found by the California Commission.
For more information about the California Commission’s work click here.