Archive for August, 2008
Loved Lived on Death Row follows the amazing journey of the Syriani siblings from hate to forgiveness toward their father who was sentenced to die for the murder of their mother and recounts the friendship between their father and his pen-pal and spiritual advisor, Meg Eggleston.
Orphaned and estranged, the Syriani children raised themselves enduring feelings of hate and confusion toward their father. Despite their feelings, they collectively decided to visit him in prison in 2004 in order to seek some answers and move on with their lives. What transpired was a miracle of forgiveness, followed by a journey of reconciliation, and finally a battle for his clemency in North Carolina. Their story received national press and appearances on Good Morning America and Larry King Live.
The Syriani family attributes the friendship and guidance that Meg Eggleston, a grandmother of six, gave to their father as vital to their reconciliation process. Inspired by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, Meg began corresponding with Elias Syriani five years ago, and Elias ultimately asked Meg to witness and support him on the night of his execution.
Love Lived on Death Row is produced and directed by Linda Booker who will participate in a Q & A session following the film showing at the Belcourt. The film was an official selection of a variety of film festivals such as the New Orleans Film Festival, Indie Memphis, as well as the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival.
Sister Helen Prejean describes this film as “Heart-rending yet inspirational, this documentary will leave audiences thinking about the Syriani’s story and the issues addressed in it long after viewing.” The film is sponsored by the TCASK, and we hope that this film will offer a glimpse into the complexities of the use of the death penalty when a murder occurs within a single family. When faced with such a situation, the death penalty only revictimizes family members and ultimately serves no one.
The film will be shown at the Belcourt Theatre on September 9, 2008 at 7:00 p.m. and will be followed by a Q & A session with the director. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased at www.belcourt.org or at the door. If you in the area, please mark the date, and see this powerful film.
As TCASK’s newest staff member, I would like to take a moment to introduce myself. I will be working as an organizer, specifically in reaching out to members of law enforcement and their respective agencies. I will also be working to expand our Sharing our Stories: Murder Victim’s Families Speak program which pairs a murder victim’s family member with a TCASK volunteer to provide presentations. I was born and raised in Indiana but have called Nashville my home since 1985. For the last 10 years I have been involved in many social justice issues in Nashville, especially in the area of prison reform. I serve on the Board of Directors of Dismas House, a transitional halfway house that works with and supports men coming out of prison. I have spoken at colleges and universities on the subjects of Felony Disenfranchisement and Alternative Justice. I also help teach the Inside/Out class at the Charles Bass Correctional Facility. I am so excited and humbled that my life’s journey has led me to TCASK and the opportunity to work with such talented, devoted and passionate people.
The Fairness subcommittee of the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee met for several hours yesterday in a thoughtful, yet at times frustrating, discussion on the importance of creating an independent authority in Tennessee to oversee capital defense services. Since its inception, the Death Penalty Study Committee has heard over and over again how the issue of inadequate defense is not only unfair to defendants but also increases the length of the process and costs of the death penalty because of the ensuing appeals.
The Fairness subcommittee whose membership includes Rich McGee (appointed by the Post Conviction Defenders’ Commission), District Attorney General Al Schmutzer (DA’s Conference), Bill Redick (Tennessee Justice Project), Mark Stephens (Public Defenders’ Conference), Elizabeth Ryan (Attorney General), Sen. Doug Jackson, Rep. Kent Coleman and subcommittee chair, Tom Lee (Governor), all of whom are attorneys, agreed on some important points concerning the creation of an independent body to oversee capital defense services in Tennessee.
All the members agreed with Tom Lee that “the public good is protected and enhanced by better lawyers and that both prosecutors and defense attorneys prefer to try cases when all the participating attorneys are prepared and competent.” Members also agreed that compensation for appointed counsel in capital cases is extremely low, and General Schmutzer stated that “defense attorneys should be paid what they are worth,” which is currently not the case.
In Tennessee, the lead appointed counsel in a capital cases receives $100 per hour in front of the judge and $60-80 on work outside of the courtroom. In contrast, an attorney in private practice can make anywhere from $200-350 per hour on domestic or civil rights cases which don’t involve someone living or dying. Many times a defense attorney appointed to a capital case will actually lose money in defending the client, and such service can prevent a hardship on attorneys in small offices.
Members also agreed that defense attorneys should not have to meet with judges “ex parte” (privately in the judge’s chambers) to ask for the resources they need to put on their defense as is the case today. Prosecutors do not have to go to judges to ask for the funds to put on their cases, and the defense shouldn’t have to either. Furthermore, everyone agreed that standards for attorneys defending clients in capital cases should be much higher than the current standards which are very basic and do not ensure an attorney has the ability, training, or preparation for the complexities of a death penalty case. In North Carolina, which has such an independent body overseeing its indigent defense services, defendants have been much more willing to plead guilty because they have more faith that their attorneys are actually competent and have their best interests in mind. In fact, in 2007 in North Carolina, there were fewer than 20 capital trials which saves taxpayers money and victims’ families the trauma of lengthy trials.
However, another important function of an independent body to oversee defense services in Tennessee would be to have the authority to recruit, monitor, and appoint defense counsel in capital cases, ensuring that competent, qualified lawyers are available to defend these cases, particularly as public defender caseloads in this state are already unmanageable.
General Schmutzer could not see the benefit of such a role for an independent body and adamantly stated that the appointing of defense attorneys should fall to the judges in the local districts. But, the reality that was stated over and over again by other members of the subcommittee, including Sen. Jackson, is that such a responsibility is not the primary role of the judge. Members noted that judges are very busy and don’t have time to track down defense attorneys who are capable and willing to represent capital cases, a very specialized kind of case. Therefore, what often happens is that attorneys who are not very skilled but need the work will volunteer to take cases, or judges will call an attorney asking her to serve which may put her in a bind as she feels obligated do what the judge asks even if she does not have the time.
Senator Jackson firmly believes that the current process for selecting defense counsel in capital cases is “haphazard” at best and needs a structure and a body whose job is to recruit and appoint competent attorneys who will monitor services and ensure that defendants are getting fair representation. Again, if, as stated by both prosecutors and defense attorneys during the meeting, it benefits everyone to have the best attorneys representing both sides at trial, how can such an appointing authority be anything but an improvement over the current system where appeals are often rightly granted on “inadequate representation” claims which ultimately cost the state far more in time and money the long run.
Though time and money are important, Senator Jackson reminded the subcommittee yesterday that, “first and foremost, the concern must be with fairness of the death penalty system because though a majority of Tennesseans (including Sen. Jackson) support the death penalty, they want it to be fair and accurate and efficient.”
Tom Lee mused about how citizens would react if the civil courts functioned in the same way as the courts do in capital cases. He wondered how he would feel if he were being sued in court over a civil matter like a car accident, and at his appearance in court, the judge hearing his case appointed his attorney and then told his attorney exactly how much he/she could spend on his defense? Would that give him confidence that he was getting a fair hearing in court? Probably not. When a person’s life is on the line, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to ensure that a defendant is at least getting a fair hearing from the beginning?
The creation of an independent authority to oversee capital defense in Tennessee is a common sense approach to ensure defendants are adequately represented from the beginning, limiting the appeals and costs of the system, and providing Tennesseans with the confidence that the system is as fair as possible. Let’s hope the Committee continues to run with this idea!
Last week, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) hosted a training in Washington D.C. The training was the First Annual Abolitionist Leadership Training Institute. It was held at Catholic University. States were asked to bring a team of 4 individuals to the training. The Tennessee delegation consisted of myself, Jenny (Knoxville), Amy (Memphis), and Clemmie (Nashville). We were all very excited to travel to Washington D.C. to further Tennessee’s abolitionist movement and to work with others from around the country. A total of 57 folks came from 30 states–a great turnout.
Early on the focus was on membership development, i.e., signing up new members for your organization. One lesson, albeit a fairly technical one, that I gleaned was to change our sign up sheets. This might sound mundane, but I am very excited about the shift because it will allow members to answer more questions and feel compelled to give all of their information. Next, we had a training on fundraising. Other than learning about how to raise funds for our organization, I was made aware of how many of the anti-death penalty organizations around the country subsist with meager funds. They do so much with so little. These organizations inspire me and affirm my conviction to seize this moment and take advantage of the position TCASK is now in.
For the three other Tennesseans, this was their first experience gathering with abolitionists at a national level. They were all so excited. Aside from the usefulness of the training, these events serve as a valuable time for networking. Lessons learned in Tennessee can be applicable to Pennsylvania. Lessons learned in South Carolina can be useful in Tennessee. Amy, who is a Presbyterian minister, saw this as a valuable opportunity to discourse with other ministers about inciting interest amongst clergy.
NCADP deserves significant praise for putting on this training. While the anti-death penalty movement is a state by state movement, there is a need for national cohesion–solidarity. The Abolitionist Leadership Training Institute has given states the tools they need to strengthen their respective movements and has also built the national relationships necessary to fully capitalize on the success of other states. For me, trainings or conferences on a national level serve as a reminder of how amazing the anti-death penalty is and how wonderful the people involved in it are.
In the ABA’s 2007 report on Tennessee’s death penalty system, Tennessee fully complied with only 7 of 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate system. The lack of preservation of DNA evidence was one of the failures of Tennessee’s system.
An article in yesterday’s Tennessean highlights issues such as extra costs and storage space as reasons why Tennessee and other states are not preserving evidence. Surely avoiding the execution of an innocent person would trump “storage” as a priority in Tennessee. Here is yet another issue for the Study Committee to examine.
Read the article here.
The California Commission on the Death Penalty released its report on June 30, 2008, and I think it is important for Tennesseans, whose legislature is also examining the death penalty with the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, to reflect on what the California report found. Here are some excerpts:
“Thirty persons have been on California’s death row for more than 25 years; 119 have been on death row for more than 2o years; and 240 have been on death row for more than 15 years.”
(In Tennessee, by my count, there are 27 inmates on death row who have been there for 20 years or more. There are 16 inmates who have been there for 15-20 years.)
“The families of murder victims are cruelly deluded in to believing that justice will be delivered with finality during their lifetimes.”
“The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate.”
(There has been no thorough and complete study of the cost of Tennessee’s death penalty system in the modern era.)
- Narrowing the list of special circumstances that make a case eligible for a death sentence such as limiting aggravators and excluding felony murder as the basis for death eligibility
- Establishing the maximum penalty at lifetime incarceration
- Estimating and comparing the annual costs of available alternatives
“This report sets forth an ambitious and expensive agenda of reform. The failure to implement , however will be even more costly. The death penalty will remain a hollow promise to the people of California.”
Read the full report here.
Last Thursday, the Promptness subcommittee of the Tennessee Study Committee on the Administration of the Death Penalty met for several hours with some compelling testimony and discussion.
One topic concerned the creation of an independent coordinator for services available to surviving victims’ families of first degree murder. This idea was raised by Committee member, Charlie Strobel, who himself experienced the horrible murder of his mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, in Nashville in 1986. As a representative of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, Charlie is looking for ways to help surviving families navigate the justice system following a murder with an independent advocate who is employed by neither the DA’s nor the defense. Currently, most victims’ advocates in Tennessee are located in the office of the District Attorneys. Though Charlie appreciates the work of these advocates, he believes that it is important that surviving families also have an independent person to talk to when difficult questions arise which families might feel uncomfortable asking either the DA’s or defense teams, both who have a stake in the process.
Many on the Committee felt that this proposed idea had real merit. Verna Wyatt, a Committee member and victims’ advocate representing “You Have the Power” questioned the need for such an independent coordinator. However, it is hard for me to imagine why the creation of a neutral person whose only agenda is to serve surviving families would be problematic. Perhaps more will be revealed.
Additionally, I was troubled by a Dennis Ferrier story which ran on WSMV Channel 4 on the Thursday news following the meeting concerning the length of time for post-conviction proceedings. At the prior subcommittee meeting on July 24, Mrs. Wyatt brought a resolution forward asking the legislature to urge the judiciary to comply with a 1995 law stating that such procedures should be limited to one year. After much testimony and discussion, the 1995 law mandating a one year time limit was found to be completely unrealistic and incompatible with a meaningful review.
Mr. Ferrier was not present for that meeting on July 24 when two judges appeared before the committee to talk about why this law cannot realistically be followed. Don Dawson of the Post-Conviction Defenders’ Office as well as Bill Redick, a Committee member, agreed with the judges and thoughtfully laid out all the reasons why this is the case.
If Mr. Ferrier had been present at that meeting, he would have heard testimony from these judges stating that in many cases, post conviction attorneys are starting from scratch on these cases as so many defendants get little to no defense in their original trials. Post-conviction attorneys have to begin at the beginning, doing all the research, interviews of witnesses and family members, and study that should have been done the first time around. Also, procedural issues can pop up which delay proceedings. In fact, at the Promptness subcommittee on June 19th, Elizabeth Ryan of the AG’s office and a Committee member, testified that delays in proceedings can be caused by the defense, the state, and even the courts themselves.
In his testimony on July 24, Judge Harris referenced the Gussie Vann case in which he just ruled in post-conviction proceedings that Vann deserved a new trial and was possibly innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Vann’s case has been in post conviction litigation for nine years. All of us can agree that nine years is too long, but executing an innocent person should never be an option either.
Mrs. Wyatt brought the resolution for a good reason. She believes that victims’ families should not be told that such proceedings will take a year if that is not accurate. Families suffer enough without having to deal with unrealistic expectations created by ill advised laws. Agreed!
By the end of Thursday’s meeting, subcommittee members decided that what was really needed was accurate data to understand the post-conviction process. Mrs. Wyatt agreed to bring a bill up for consideration in the next meeting requiring reports from the administrative office of the courts to be filed with the legislature concerning how long these cases are taking as well as reasons for delay. With that information, the 1995 law can be updated to reflect a more accurate picture of the time that these cases should realistically take.
However, that conclusion was not brought out in Ferrier’s story. Instead, he questioned the integrity of the judges who are simply trying to do meaningful reviews of these cases and cannot get them completed in the arbitrary time limits of this law. I found Mrs. Wyatt’s quote in the story concerning the judges to be unfair as she states, “They are either dragging their feet because they don’t believe in the death penalty, or they don’t care and it looks really arrogant. It looks very arrogant.”
Might I offer another explanation for the reason for the delay. Perhaps the reason that these cases take some time to sort out is that most capital defendants in Tennessee are poor and go to trial with inadequate–if not invisible–defense with issues of faulty eyewitness testimony, alibi witnesses who are never called to testify, or severe mental illness that is never even mentioned in their trial. This total lack of adequate defense representation means that post-conviction attorneys are starting from scratch and need time. Perhaps it is also that judges want to be sure that if a person’s life is at stake, all measures are taken to ensure the defendant is getting a fair and accurate hearing; and in fact, the delay has nothing to do with anti-death penalty sentiment or arrogance as Mrs. Wyatt states.
And, if Mr. Ferrier had been present for the preceding committee meeting, he would have heard all of this testimony firsthand and might have envisioned his story a different way. What I think he would have heard over and over again is that if defense attorneys had the resources and training that they needed on the front end, post-conviction procedures would not take nearly the time that they currently take.
I think his story would have been about why Tennessee needs an independent authority to oversee capital defense in this state to ensure that capital defendants are being defended adequately.
Read or view Ferrier’s story here.