With my time at Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty coming to and end, I would like to thank everyone who made this year a meaningful one. I am grateful for the guidance, humor, and support offered by the TADP staff and numerous others along the way. I have learned a great deal during my time here and hope I have helped in some small way to move this state closer to repeal. I will certainly miss working here, but I leave knowing the movement is in extremely capable hands and looking forward to the celebration when Tennessee finally abolishes the death penalty.
At the request of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane, the state of Georgia filmed Andrew Grant DeYoung’s execution Thursday. It was the first such filming since 1992. The order came after defense attorneys for another death row inmate, Gregory Walker, argued the use of a new drug, pentobarbital, required video documentation. In defending Judge Lane’s decision, defense attorney Brian Kramer argues, “We’ve had three botched lethal injections in Georgia prior to Mr. DeYoung, and we thought it was time to get some hard evidence.”
The judge’s order received mixed reactions, with many suggesting that the video, now in the judge’s chambers, could be leaked to the public. William Otis, a former chief of the appellate division at the United States attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, suggests, “There’s something that I think would give a normal person pause about making readily available pictures of executions.”
Others argue it might be a good thing if the public were to view executions. Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman pointed out, “I think that this is the kind of government activity that ought to be publicly known about. ”
Ultimately, experts expect Judge Lane’s decision to impact cases across the country as defense attorneys call in to question the humaneness of their clients’ executions.
Of the many people asking Texas Governor Rick Perry to stay Mark Stroman’s execution, conventional wisdom suggests Rais Bhuiyan should not be one of them. Stroman shot Bhuiyan in the face and murdered two others following the September 11th attacks because he believed they “were Arabs.” Stroman is scheduled to be executed tonight. When asked in a New York Times interview why he has spent the last year advocating for a stay of execution, Bhuiyan responded, “We all make mistakes. He’s another human being, like me. Hate the sin, not the sinner. It’s very important that I meet him to tell him I feel for him and I strongly believe he should get a second chance. That I never hated the U.S. He could educate a lot of people. Thinking about what is going to happen makes me very emotional. I can’t sleep. Once I go to bed I feel there is another person that I know who is in his bed thinking about what is going to happen to him — that he is going to be tied to a bed and killed. It makes me very emotional and very sad and makes me want to do more.”
U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson has ruled Virginia prosecutors withheld evidence and supported the use of false testimony in the trial of Justin Michael Wolfe. Wolfe, convicted in 2002, has spent nine years on death row. In a 57-page ruling, Jackson put forth a sharp critique of Prince William County prosecutors Paul B. Ebert and Richard A. Conway. “Ebert and Conway’s actions served to deprive Wolfe of any substantive defense in a case where his life would rest on the jury’s verdict. The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.” Along with charges of withholding evidence and using false testimony, Jackson also concluded the attorneys violated Wolfe’s 6th Amendment rights by the improper exclusion of a juror.
Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg, described her family as ecstatic following the ruling. “It’s the best we could have hoped for. Judge Jackson is the first judge to be presented all of the facts, and this was the decision he came back with. It’s huge.”
Over the years, members of the TADP staff have met and been inspired by Terri Steinberg as she worked to have all the facts in her son’s case heard by the courts. Regardless of how one feels about the death penalty, most will agree that our system must ensure that every defendant receives a fair trial and that juries are make these life and death decisions based on all the evidence. If the system cannot ensure a fair process 100% of the time, how can we continue to sentence people to death?
In an article featured on the Washington Post’s website, writer E.J. Dionne Jr. discusses how U.S. politicians, and now the U.S. Supreme Court, displayed a complete lack of regard for international law in executing Humberto Leal. While Dionne makes no claims about Leal’s innocence, he argues that in ignoring the Vienna Convention, the International Court of Justice, the Mexican government, and President Obama, the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas Governor Rick Perry have stained the reputation of the United States and possibly endangered Americans detained abroad. Dionne also summarizes some of the legislation proposed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy, which would align American laws with the Vienna Convention. Quoting Senator Leahy, Dionne points out that agreements such as the Vienna Convention, “only function effectively if every country meets its obligations under the treaty — including the United States.”
Have you ever been to Pleasant Hill, Tennessee? I would guess many have not. It is a small community nestled in the mountains of Cumberland County with a population of about 500. And within that tiny community is a giant of a congregation, the Pleasant Hill Community Church. This congregation does not shy away from the hard stuff of life, but confronts it head on.
I was invited to lead a class for the community there on Sunday, June 26, and then to preach during worship for the congregation’s first Abolition Sunday, a Sunday dedicated to raising awareness about the problems with the death penalty and empowering people of faith, particularly Christians, to end it.
To my knowledge, this congregation is the first in Tennessee to declare its commitment to repeal by setting aside one Sunday a year to focus on the issue. The idea came to two of the church’s members when they attended the Kairos Conference in Atlanta last year, a conference sponsored by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. The two wanted to do something tangible within their own congregation to witness to a different way of addressing the violence in our communities, and Abolition Sunday was born.
Obviously, the issue of the death penalty is a difficult one with the variety of strong views that individuals have about it. And, because of its difficulty, too often, it simply isn’t addressed, particularly in our churches.
Though most every church has a cross visible from the steeple or prominently placed in the sanctuary, we Christians too easily shy away from the hard reality that the cross is a symbol of execution and that we follow one who himself was executed. Don’t we have to talk about it? As a former parish pastor, I know the extreme pressure pastors and church leaders are under to keep such divisive issues to a minimum, but at what cost?
The worship at Pleasant Hill Community Church on Abolition Sunday was deeply moving and the Spirit at work among those present was palpable. I am deeply grateful to the members of this congregation and hope that they will inspire others to address this issue not only in light of its policy failures, but in light of their faith.
Thank you Pleasant Hill Community Church for your witness and ministry in Tennessee.
Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck Inc., the sole U.S. supplier of pentobarbital, announced earlier this month that they have put measures in place to keep states from using the sedative for executions. Some of the measures outlined by Lundbeck’s chief executive, Ulf Wiinberg, include a more stringent purchase review process, restricting the shipment of drugs to states with high execution rates, and making all purchasers sign a written agreement not to redistribute the drug. While acknowledging the new protections cannot ensure pentobarbital will not be used in executions, he is confident the measures will lead to a reduction in its use. Wiinberg concluded, “After much consideration, we have determined that a restricted distribution system is the most meaningful means through which we can restrict the misuse of Nembutal. While the company has never sold the product directly to prisons and therefore can’t make guarantees, we are confident that our new distribution program will play a substantial role in restricting prisons’ access to Nembutal for misuse as part of lethal injection.”