Both pro- and anti-death penalty advocates say the same thing — Tennessee’s death penalty system is broken.
Proponents of capital punishment say families of victims have to wait decades for a death sentence to be carried out while costs pile up for the taxpayers.
Lawyers defending death row inmates ask for appeal after appeal and delay after delay, they say. Meanwhile, victims’ families struggle for closure and thirst for the justice they feel they’re entitled to.
Besides fundamental opposition to capital punishment, opponents of the death penalty say the state employs an arbitrary system in which there are no uniform standards for judging when a death sentence should be pursued and when it shouldn’t.
Meanwhile, a judicial system representing society tries to reassure itself that only guilty convicted murderers meeting the criteria for execution are being put to death at the sharp tip of a syringe or the seat of an electric chair.
Representatives from each side of the controversial societal issue say the state’s capital punishment system needs an overhaul.
“If you ask most people, if you gave the Tennessee capital punishment system a grade, what would it be? I think a lot of people would probably give it a pretty low grade,” said Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), a member of a special state committee studying the death penalty in Tennessee. “So obviously, it needs improvement, and the only way you can do that is by studying it.”
Last week, Dunn and other portions of the Special Joint Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty renewed their meetings after a bill was passed this year extending the panel’s existence.
They will be focusing on promptness, accuracy and fairness and are supposed to finish their work later this year.
They may not need to be in a rush.
The state Attorney General’s Office has placed a self-imposed moratorium on any executions in Tennessee until a federal appellate court rules on the state’s appeal of a decision that said the state’s three-drug protocol for carrying out lethal injection caused cruel and unusual punishment.
Tennessee may be aided through a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision released earlier this year that found Kentucky’s lethal injection method, which is similar to Tennessee’s, was constitutional and did not inflict cruel and unusual punishment.
Even if the self-imposed moratorium were lifted, Tennessee likely wouldn’t proceed soon with carrying out any death sentences.
Currently, there are no scheduled executions of death row inmates who have exhausted their appeals, said Sue Allison, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts.
Allison said the two who did have scheduled executions — Jerome Harbison and Pervis Payne — have each received stays as a result of the federal litigation. A Harbison appeal resulted in the state’s three-drug protocol being deemed unconstitutional.
The moratorium has slowed what had been an up-tick in the state carrying out death sentences under Gov. Phil Bredesen’s watch.
In about a 15-month span between June 28, 2006 and Sept. 12, 2007, three death row inmates — Sedley Alley, Phillip Workman and Daryl Holton, respectively — were executed. Holton was put to death via the electric chair, the first execution through electricity since 1960.
Currently, there are 90 convicts residing on Tennessee’s death row — 88 men and two women, according to the state Department of Correction. This month, the oldest living death row inmate, Richard Austin, died after 30 years awaiting his sentence being carried out.
Now, Donald Strouth, 49, is the longest current death row inmate after being sentenced in 1978.
Waiting years and years for death sentences to be carried out is nothing new for victims’ families.
Verna Wyatt, the executive director of You Have the Power, a victim’s advocacy group, said making the families of victims wait oftentimes decades for the killer of their loved one to be put to death is “re-victimizing the victim … for years and years.”
“I would like to say to Tennesseans — if you don’t think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, then let’s not give it out because giving out a sentence of death, the victims families wait forever to get their justice,” Wyatt said. “So if Tennesseans don’t think that this is an appropriate punishment — then we shouldn’t be giving it out. We shouldn’t even be asking for it.”
Besides Strouth, convicted 30 years ago, there are 17 death row inmates still awaiting their ultimate sentences who were convicted 23 or more years ago.
Wyatt said the death penalty in Tennessee is “broken” from a victim’s standpoint and places the blame at judges not enforcing an existing law designed to expedite the post-conviction process.
She also says the state’s Office of the Post-Conviction Offender asks for too many delays and private attorneys should be assigned to represent the death row inmates.
Victims’ families awaiting justice can avoid some of that heartache if they didn’t seek the death penalty, says Charles Strobel, a member of the study committee who opposes capital punishment.
Strobel’s mother was murdered and he said his family received closure quicker because they told prosecutors they did not want the killer executed.
Instead, three life sentences without parole were handed down, Strobel said.
“It just is awfully, awfully painful to hear that people are stuck waiting for a justice that doesn’t close anything,” Strobel said, adding that the state should help families understand the appellate process better.
Opponents of capital punishment, like Don Dawson, also argue that the state has no uniform standard on when prosecutors seek the death penalty.
Dawson, the executive director of the state’s post-conviction defender’s office, said state prosecutors seek the death penalty if they’re positive they can get a conviction for first-degree murder based on the potential jury demographics from the county where jurors are selected.
“That standard sets up 95 separate decision making areas for whether they’re even going to ask for the death penalty in the case,” Dawson said. “That seems to me to be the definition of arbitrariness.”
Dawson says he disagrees with Wyatt’s assertion that private attorneys be assigned to represent death row inmates instead of post-conviction attorneys. Dawson said that the state’s $60-an-hour payment to attorneys wouldn’t attract attorneys prepared to invest the time necessary to defend a death row inmate and who have the knowledge required.