Today the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that death row inmate, Perry Cribbs, is entitled to a new sentencing hearing, reversing his death sentence and remanding the case back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing. Perry Cribbs has been on Tennessee’s death row for 15 years.
In November 1994, Perry Anthony Cribbs was convicted of killing Linda Harris in Memphis, Tennessee, with no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Cribbs’ conviction was based on the questionable eyewitness identification of Harris’ husband and the unreliable testimony of Cribbs’ then mentally ill, drug addicted girlfriend. Because Cribbs’ attorneys failed to investigate his case, the jury never heard testimony from an alibi witness or a witness who had information that others, including Mrs. Harris’ husband committed the crime. The jury never heard from Linda Harris’ family and friends who knew that Harris’ husband had motives to have her killed.
On February 12, 1994, two days before Cribbs’ arrest, a Shelby County jail inmate named James Parker contacted Memphis homicide detectives and told them that he was present when a man he identified as Sidney Harris asked a drug dealer to find someone to kill his wife. According to Mr. Parker’s statement, Sidney Harris owed the dealer money.
Mr. Parker said he was also present days later when three men, who he identified by nicknames, talked about killing Linda Harris. They said they should have killed the husband too instead of only wounding him. The detectives assigned to the case did not follow up on the lead nor did Cribbs’ trial attorneys ever attempt to contact Parker or anyone named in his statement. At the post conviction hearing, Mr. Parker stated that he served his time for the petty crime for which he was in custody and did not expect to receive a deal for providing information to the police. Other witnesses testified at the post-conviction hearing that Sidney Harris was involved in the sale of drugs.
Neither the state nor Cribbs’ attorneys talked to the family and friends of Linda Harris, several of whom, at the post-conviction hearing, testified to the problems in the Harris marriage and about Sidney Harris’ behavior before and after his wife’s death. In the weeks before her death, Linda Harris wrote a letter to her sister expressing concern about what would happen to her daughter if something happened to her. Family members were aware that Linda Harris’ life insurance was changed before her death and that there was a gun in the home. Sidney Harris did not attend his wife’s funeral even though he had his doctor’s permission to do so, and even Mr. Harris’ own brother called police and told them that he did not think his brother was telling everything he knew about the murder.The police still never pursued Harris as a suspect, and again, Cribbs’ trial attorneys never investigated Harris or talked to his brother, even though they were aware of his brother’s statement.
One week before trial and with an incomplete investigation, Cribbs’ lead attorney withdrew from the case due to illness, and second counsel took over. New counsel did not ask for a continuance in order to complete the investigation. Another attorney was appointed as co-counsel but did not have time to prepare before trial.
Perry Cribbs maintains that he is innocent of this crime and has no knowledge of Linda Harris’ murder. This case is yet another demonstration of the problems that currently plague the death penalty system, including grossly inadequate representation at trial and faulty eyewitness testimony.
With no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, Cribbs received a death sentence. Thankfully, the Tennessee Supreme Court recognized the total ineffectiveness of his attorneys and granted him this new sentencing hearing. However, given the facts in this case, Perry Cribbs should be allowed to challenge his conviction with a new trial as well. This time Cribbs should have competent attorneys presenting all the evidence, evidence never considered by the jury. Without a new trial, too many questions remain.
Read more about this case here.
John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, had a wonderful article in Sunday’s Tennessean entitled “The Uneven Hand of Justice” about the Gaile Owens case in Tennessee.
Seigenthaler highlights the disparity in Gaile’s sentence compared with similar crimes in Tennessee, particularly the case of Mary Winkler who served 67 days in a mental health facility after murdering her abusive husband in 2006. Of all the cases mentioned in the article, Owens’ was the only defendant who was willing to plead guilty and take responsibility for her decision. Yet, she is the only one who faces execution.
In this case, the judicial process broke down over and over again with the jury never hearing about the abuse Gaile suffered, with her trial attorneys spending only 2 hours preparing for her trial, and with the prosecutor withholding crucial evidence substantiating Gaile’s claims of her husband’s infidelity.
Regardless of whether one supports or opposes the death penalty, and given the facts in this case, Gaile Owens should not be executed. She has already served 23 years on death row and has taken responsibility for her tragic decision. How can Tennessee execute Gaile Owens when others in similar situations have received lesser sentences? The outcome of this case is no longer about Gaile Owens’ bad decision but about our decision as a state. What will we choose? Let us choose accountability without the death penalty.
Read the article here.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has given death row inmate, Gaile Owens, additional time to argue against the state setting her execution date. Her attorneys argued that a court never fully examined evidence that she was abused by her husband which might have resulted in a sentence less than death.
Read more here.
An article in today’s New York Times explains that, “the dozen states that have chosen not to enact the death penalty since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that it was constitutionally permissible have not had higher homicide rates than states with the death penalty.” In fact, the 12 states without the death penalty have homicide rates lower than the national average.
The article also reports that “in a state-by- state analysis, The Times found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty.”
This article focuses on states without the death penalty and includes commentary from insiders working within those state systems.
This article is a great read for anyone who wants to understand the failures of this system in preventing violent crime.
Read the article here.
Gaile Owens’ attorneys have asked for additional time in preparing a defense against the setting of an execution date in her case. The state has requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court set an execution date for Owens after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected her final appeal.
Owens was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of her husband. However, as in so many of these cases, the jury did not have critical mitigating evidence which could have resulted in a sentence of less than death, particularly evidence of the abuse that Gaile suffered at the hands of her husband and her acceptance of the state’s plea offer before trial to life imprisonment.
Read more here.
I wrote an op ed that appeared in Sunday’s Tennessean concerning Cecil Johnson’s case and the lack of a statewide open file discovery policy in Tennessee. Such a policy would have almost certainly made a difference in the case’s outcome.
Read the article here.
The Tennessean is reporting that the state of Tennessee has officially asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to set an execution date for Gaile Owens, one of two women on Tennessee’s death row. Owens was sentenced to death for the murder of her husband in 1986.
Read the article here.
Ohio death row inmate, Kenneth Biros, became the first person put to death by a single drug lethal injection protocol when he was executed earlier today. The single drug injection took 10 minutes to cause the inmate’s death but removes concerns about unnecessary suffering that currently accompany the three-drug cocktail used across the country.
Read more here.
Last night, our intern, Diana, and I attended the Governor and First Lady’s annual “Season to Remember” event at the state Capitol. This event provides murder victims’ families in Tennessee a very meaningful and important opportunity to hang ornaments on wreaths in memory of their loves ones. The wreaths are then displayed in the Capitol.
Each family hangs an ornament while the name of their loved one is read aloud. The families are personally greeted by the Governor and First Lady. I am always moved by this event. Sitting among all those grieving families is a bitter reminder of the toll that violence takes on so many people in our state.
Davidson County Deputy District Attorney General, Tom Thurman, was the featured speaker. General Thurman became emotional when talking about two cold cases that had been solved this year in Davidson County, the cases of Vanderbilt student Sarah Des Prez and the case of 9 year old Marcia Trimble. Both cases had been unsolved for more than 30 years.
As I heard General Thurman speak, I was moved by his dedication and compassion toward these families who had been waiting for so long to see their children’s murderer brought to account. I also thought of one of our TADP supporters and participants in our “Sharing our Stories: Murder Victims’ Families Speak” program, James, whose mother was murdered when he was only 12. Her case remains unsolved.
I thought of the state of Colorado which almost passed legislation to repeal the death penalty this year in order to use all the money saved by ending the death penalty to solve cold cases. With so many cases unsolved, it seems that the money we spend to pursue death in a few cases could be used to find dangerous people still at large in our communities and give grieving families the comfort of knowing that their loved one’s killer is being held accountable.
Regardless of one’s feelings about the death penalty, we would all do well to remember all the families and friends who will spend another holiday without their loved ones because of someone else’s senseless act of violence.
I pray that all who mourn may know God’s peace which passes all our understanding.
Ray Krone, the 100th death row exoneree, spoke to a crowd of 200 at Belmont University and to 50 people at First Presbyterian Church in Cookeville yesterday, ironically the same day that the state executed Cecil Johnson. Krone’s story is a powerful reminder of the flaws of the death penalty system and why the death penalty is not worth the risk.
We will give you more information about Ray’s visit in a later blog, but I wanted everyone to see the great story that Fox News 17 did on the Belmont event. Watch it here.