Since I began my stint with Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty two and half years ago much has happened in the movement to end capital punishment. The turn of events in a relatively short period – the beginning of 2014 – has been dizzying.
In the first six months on the job, two executions were botched, one in Oklahoma and Arizona, both of which have had massive legal repercussions for each state since then. At the same time, broad conversations were emerging more frequently across the nation. Even pop culture began to take up storylines of wrongful convictions and exonerations. The Serial podcast, Netflix’s Making a Murderer, and Sundance TV’s Rectify all gained critical acclaim and has made these constellation of issues household topics. Bryan Stevenson’s incredible success with Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) has proven not only the timely nature of issues surrounding capital punishment, but also the marketability of such works. For a time, I couldn’t enter a Starbucks without seeing Stevenson’s book displayed at the front counter. Try to recall another book about a weighty policy issue that has been sold in thousands of coffee shops. I’m not sure that there has been one.
I’ve been encouraged by meeting people of all political ideologies that have abandoned the mythology of the death penalty’s effectiveness for public safety. My colleagues at Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty – Heather Beaudoin, Marc Hyden, Ben Jones, and Amy Lawrence (TN) – model how to communicate a difficult matter with grace and hospitality for anyone who will give them a hearing. Furthermore, having seen and heard the changing opinion of Tennessee lawmakers, there is much reason to be hopeful for the near future.
Another area for hope, perhaps from an unlikely source, emerges from evangelicals in Tennessee with whom I’ve shared many conversations. Having traveled from one end of Tennessee to the other, I know how the changing perception of the death penalty is spreading among pastors, university professors and administrators, and especially among millennials. The systemic problems are becoming too big to go unnoticed moving the consciences of many to oppose capital punishment.
The greatest lessons I will take from my time with TADP, however, came from listening to Stacy Rector. Stacy shared with me her experiences as spiritual advisor to the now-deceased Steve Henley, a former death row inmate. Stacy took me to Tennessee’s death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute after only six months on the job. The trip made such an impact that I visited an inmate for the next year while I lived in Nashville, which deepened my conviction that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” as Bryan Stevenson says.
Lastly, Stacy has always encouraged me to sit with the stories of murder victims’ family members and those wrongfully convicted by our justice system. It is impossible to meet these people and not be struck by how violence and retribution are vicious cycles that never contribute to their healing. Even as these meetings were rare for me, I listened for as long as they desired to speak, and I came away changed. It was truly a privilege to hear their stories. While I am going to miss working with everyone connected to TADP on a day-to-day basis, I remain committed to the work that I believe will make Tennessee a more just place. I came to TADP from the classroom, which has been my first love vocationally, and I’m leaving TADP to return to a teaching position here in Knoxville. I will certainly stay involved locally and with TADP to ensure that we honor life by working to abolish capital punishment.
Justin Phillips, Associate Director
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