Yesterday as Tennessee prepared to execute Edmund Zagorski, the state of Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty in this country!
Thankfully, back here in Tennessee, Governor Haslam gave Mr. Zagorski a 10-day reprieve just hours before he was to be executed. Haslam specifically referenced the electric chair suit in his reprieve, suggesting that a delay would give the state time to prepare to execute Mr. Zagorski using the electric chair.
The Governor stated, “I take seriously the responsibility imposed upon the Tennessee Department of Correction and me by law, and given the federal court’s decision to honor Zagorski’s last-minute decision to choose electrocution as the method of execution, this brief reprieve will give all involved the time necessary to carry out the sentence in an orderly and careful manner.”
But, no amount of “orderliness” changes the fact that this execution should not happen at all. Six jurors from Mr. Zagorski’s trial have asked the Governor to commute his sentence to life without parole, a sentence not available to them in 1984. Mr. Zagorski has worked to rehabilitate himself, is remorseful for his crime, and has had no disciplinary issues in 34 years of incarceration. Correctional staff have also asked Governor Haslam for a commutation, and the wife of one of the victims has stated that she is satisfied with life without parole. If Mr. Zagorksi had been convicted after life without parole became a sentencing option, he would likely not be facing execution today. How’s that for arbitrary?
And the arbitrary nature of the death penalty system, particularly racial bias, is a key reason why the Washington Supreme Court struck its death penalty law down yesterday.
“There is nothing unique about the role racism played in Washington’s death penalty,” said Jeff Robinson, the deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice at the ACLU.
“What is rare is the Supreme Court’s willingness to call out the truth that has always been there. … he said.
Tennessee’s death penalty scheme is as arbitrary and racially biased as Washington’s, if not more so.
In Tennessee, 16% of the total population is African American while 47% of death row is. In Tennessee, a person is at least 3.15 times more likely to get a death sentence if the victim is white. In a 2012 report, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) looked at jury selection procedures in eight Southern states, including Tennessee and found shocking evidence of racial discrimination in every one of those states, including counties where prosecutors excluded nearly 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service; majority black counties where defendants were tried by all white juries; and some prosecutors who were actually trained to exclude people from juries based on their race as well as on how to conceal this bias.
If Governor Haslam were truly concerned about being careful, he would stop these executions until our state could do a careful examination of Tennessee’s whole death penalty system. For those who want to maintain the system as it is, the concern seems to be that if they examine it, they already know what they will find–a broken policy that is infused with arbitrariness and racial bias, that is exorbitantly expensive, too often inaccurate, and damaging to victims’ families who are trapped in it for decades.
We all know Tennessee’s death penalty is broken. We just need our leaders to have the political courage to admit it and then do something about it.