On Sunday, January 25, the Memphis Commercial Appeal published an editorial and lengthy analysis of the current state of Tennessee’s death penalty.
Read the editorial by CLICKING HERE. Read the analysis by CLICKING HERE.
“There is nothing government does that is more profound than to take the life of a citizen.”
The editorial endorses reforms that the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty has discussed: recording all custodial interrogations, proportionality review, adequate representation, and exempting those with severe mental illness.
“what could be more important than perfecting laws and policies to ensure fairness and equity in the application of capital punishment?”
“Reforming the system does not equate to being soft on crime. It does not equate to harboring sympathy for criminals or excusing unforgivable behavior.” Murderers must be held accountable. However, the reality of our system is one that is inefficient (over half of Tennessee death sentences have been overturned), lengthy (the average time spent on death row is over 10 years), and costly.
“In the meantime, there can never be enough caution in the application of the ultimate penalty.” Sadly, Steve Henley is scheduled to be executed on February 4th amidst myriad issues plaguing his case. Visit Steve Henley’s new website by CLICKING HERE.
“More than half of the 184 persons sentenced to death in Tennessee since capital punishment was restored in 1977 have had their sentences set aside. Convicts on death row spend an average of 10 years there. One has managed to delay his execution since 1978. Twenty-six men have spent 20 years or more fighting the ultimate punishment. Four have been executed. One inhabitant recently died there with no help from the state.”
The article discusses at length the work of the study committee and its attempts to reform a broken system. The new political landscape and the political risk of endorsing death penalty reform cast a shadow on the excellent work of the committee and the need to fix this broken system.
The case of Gary Cone which came out of Memphis is a harbinger of things to come. There will be more sentences reversed, more Supreme Court appearances, and more resources wasted on a policy that does not address the most critical issues of justice: fairness and equality.
Tennessee death row inmate, Arthur Copeland, has received a reduced sentence under a new plea. Copeland plead to second-degree murder with a sentence of 14 years. Copeland will serve 3 years before he is released because of the 11 years he spent on death row.
“Arthur Copeland’s first-degree murder conviction was reversed in May 2007 by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial.” His case had serious issues prompting the reversal and retrial.
Read more by clicking HERE.
Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center, had an excellent article published by the Huffington Post that makes a compelling argument for “letting go of the death penalty.”
Read the article by clicking HERE.
Dieter examines the death penalty for what it truly is: a costly, time consuming, resource expending, and flawed public policy. In this time of financial crisis, Dieter questions the death penalty’s existence as public expenditures like education and health care are in jeopardy.
Consider these facts from the article:
-California spends $138 million per year on their death penalty “but only executes less than one person every two years”
-California is now planning a new death row that will cost the state $400 million
-Maryland’s death penalty over the past 28 years has cost $37 million per execution
-Florida spends $24 million per execution
-California spends $250 million per execution
Tennessee is not an exception. The state is in a serious financial crisis. And yet, Tennessee is spending millions on its death penalty. Meanwhile, the true costs are unknown because the state does not have a centralized data collecting method. In this time of economic recession, how can Tennessee justify the exorbitant costs of the death penalty and not even know what it is truly spending?
Proponents of the death penalty advocate that the death penalty is necessary to be tough on crime.
“In the past, people were often scared into believing that the death penalty was needed to be tough on crime. Today, the death penalty is more like a bridge to nowhere–an expensive government program that does not advance the general good. It may be time to let this extravagance go.”
Sita Diehl, Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) TN and a member of the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, recently proposed that the Committee recommend legislation exempting people suffering with severe mental illness at the time of their crimes from the death sentence. This recommendation still allows for a guilty verdict and a sentence of life without parole, but it takes death off the table for a population of people who, like those with mental retardation, are less culpable for their crimes because of their diminished capacity.
Unfortunately, the Committee chose to recommend that this issue be studied further rather than take decisive action now. During the Committee’s discussion, the prosecutors on the Committee stated that the current system has mechanisms in place for dealing with people who have severe mental illness and that this recommendation was only creating more bureaucracy and more potential litigation. The prosecutors’ position prevailed.
On Friday of last week, I read a story out of Texas that demonstrates the complete lack of substance to the argument that the current system is effective in dealing with those with severe mental illness. The case is that of Andre Thomas, 25, who was convicted in 2004 for the slayings of his estranged wife, their young son, and her 13-month-old daughter, in a gruesome stabbing in which Thomas cut out the victims’ hearts, stabbed himself, and then walked into the Sherman, TX, police station to report what he had done.
While at the Grayson County jail in Sherman, Thomas plucked out his right eye before his trial in 2004. A judge subsequently ruled that Thomas was competent to stand trial, and he received the death sentence.
On December 9, 2008, a death row officer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found Thomas in his cell with blood all over his face and took him to the infirmary where it was determined that he had pulled his remaining eye out and ingested it. He was treated at East Texas Medical Center in Tyler and transferred to the prison psychiatric facility.
“He will finally be able to receive the mental health care that we had wanted and begged for from day 1,” stated his attorney Bobbie Peterson-Cate. So much for competency.
How a supposedly rational person, such as the judge in this case, can witness a man in his/her courtroom who is so ill that he cut the heart out of his own child and plucked out his own eye and then find that man competent to stand trial and receive a death sentence is beyond my ability to understand. What has happened to us as a society when it takes a man pulling his only remaining eye from his own head and eating it to decide he might need some psychiatric help?
This case demonstrates just how woefully inadequate the current system is in determining when someone is suffering from severe mental illness and how best to address the issue. Or even worse, this case demonstrates that we, as a society, simply do not have the will to address the real problems but instead prefer to rid ourselves of such people. Certainly, this is an extreme case which makes it all the more shocking that this very sick man got no help.
I hope that we in Tennessee can take an honest look at our current system and have the humanity and decency to at least, identify those individuals who are the most ill and then treat them, not kill them. Currently, Tennessee has people who suffer with severe mental illness on our death row. What is it going to take for us to do the right thing and exempt these very sick people from the death penalty?
Read more here.
After spending over two decades on death row Paul House was able to spend his 47th birthday and the 2008 Christmas holidays, at home, with his family. Because of the rarity of Paul’s case Channel 4 did a brief news piece on the House family’s holiday celebration: http://www.wsmv.com/news/18360998/detail.html
The retrial of the House case is currently set for March 30, 2009.