Yesterday the Promptness subcommittee of the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee met for four hours discussing issues from the length of time taken for post-conviction proceedings to exempting those with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
A resolution was introduced by Verna Wyatt of “You Have the Power”, a Tennessee victims’ right organization, which encouraged Tennessee’s judicial branch to comply with a current Tennessee law stating that post-conviction procedures should be kept to a one year time limit. Wyatt’s concerns are valid ones. She stated that if victims’ families are told that these proceedings will be complete in a year’s time and instead they go on for several years, victims’ families suffer great pain and frustration.
Libby Sykes of the Administrative Office of the Courts as well as two judges–Judge Don Harris and Judge Bill Acree–spoke to why a year’s time limit is completely unrealistic and cannot be followed if post-conviction proceedings are to be meaningful. The overarching theme of the conversation was that if defense attorneys had the necessary resources at the trial level, the post-conviction proceedings would need not be so lengthy. Currently, so many defendants who get to post-conviction have almost no defense at trial. Therefore, the post-conviction defenders’ office has to start from scratch to mount a defense for them which can take a long time.
Judge Harris cited the case of Tennessee death row inmate Gussie Vann who will be granted a new trial because his defense attorneys didn’t do enough to fight claims that he raped and murdered his 8-year-old daughter in 1992. Vann asked for a new trial during his last court appearance in McMinn County in September. During the hearing, forensic experts testified there were flaws in the state’s handling of evidence following Vann’s daughter’s death, which was originally reported as an accidental hanging. The experts said there were no signs of sexual abuse as originally reported in the autopsy prepared by former medical examiner Ronald Toolsie of Bradley County. Judge Harris stated in his testimony that this post-conviction process had taken nine years to complete but, had it not been thorough and meaningful, the state would have already executed a man who is innocent of rape and probably of murder. However, all the Committee members agreed that victims’ families should be given a more realistic time line that spares them unnecessary frustration and that a change in the current law is needed.
Later, Sita Diehl of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Tennessee and a member of the Study Committee gave a presentation on legislation she would like to propose which would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death sentence. This legislation would not affect convictions but only take death off the table for those who met the strict guidelines of severe mental illness, which includes people suffering delusions, hallucinations, or who are completely unaware of their actions because of disassociation.
Diehl asked the question, “If those under the age of 18 and with mental retardation can no longer be sentenced to death because they cannot fully appreciate the consequences of their actions, how can people with severe mental illness, who are totally out of touch with reality, continue to receive the death sentence?
She also highlighted the fact that by removing these most severely ill people from the possibility of a death sentence, victims’ families would be spared years of hearings and appeals on competency issues while taxpayers would save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Diehl referenced the case of Richard Taylor, a former inmate on Tennessee’s death row who killed a correctional officer in 1981 when he was taken off his anti-psychotic medication. His case was finally settled in March 2008 after he agreed to a life sentence. In just one year of litigation on his case, nearly $100,000 was spent by the state on experts. That is just in one year! Imagine how much money the state spent attempting to get the death sentence for this man with severe mental illness over the past 27 years, only to get a life sentence in the end. All of this time and money could have been saved if Taylor had not be eligible for death in the first place.
This subcommittee is examining some real common sense ideas that could streamline the process, make the system less congested and less frustrating for everyone, and truly help our Tennessee system to be far more fair and accurate than it currently is. We hope that some real change will come from all the work of this Committee and that Tennesseans will see how such reform can benefits all of us. Regardless of how we feel about the death penalty, we all want a system that treats everyone fairly and that gets it right. Until we address all these issues, the system will never be just.
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