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Cynthia Vaughn Asks for Mercy for the Man Convicted of Killing Her Mother

The Tennessean recently published an op-ed by Cynthia Vaughn, in which she asks that her stepfather, Don Johnson, be spared the death penalty on May 16th. Don was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Cynthia’s mother, Connie, when Cynthia was only seven years old. For most of her life, Cynthia wanted to see Don executed.

In the op-ed, Cynthia shares her painful journey from fervently supporting Don’s execution to advocating for his clemency. She reflects on the freedom that she experienced in forgiving him as well as her fears about the additional trauma his execution will likely inflict on her.

She writes, “After being trapped in the death penalty process for most of my life and finally receiving some peace, I now face more trauma and loss. Over these past few years, Don has become one of my last connections to my mother, and his execution will not feel like justice to me. It will feel like losing my mother all over again. I want to save his life.”

Please consider joining with Cynthia in asking Governor Lee to spare Don Johnson. You can take action and learn more about this incredible story here. 

TAKE ACTION: Contact Governor Lee and Urge Clemency for Don Johnson

Don Johnson is scheduled to be executed by the state of Tennessee on May 16, 2019, for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie, in Memphis. Connie’s daughter, Cynthia, is a frequent speaker for TADP’s Sharing Our Stories program and is asking Governor Lee to spare Don’s life. Over the past thirty-five years, Don has embraced the Christian faith and become a model inmate. He is a force for good on death row and shares his faith with others, in prison, in the community, and around the world. 

Don profoundly hurt Cynthia, his stepdaughter, by taking her mother’s life when Cynthia was only seven years old. For years, Cynthia had hoped for Don’s execution, but, in 2012, all that changed. She visited Don on death row to tell him how much he had hurt her and to unleash her full anger. Her intent for the visit was to “let him have it,” and then leave.

And though Cynthia boiled over with rage at Don, after she had the opportunity to tell him all the things that she needed to say, she heard a voice speak to her, “Let it go.”  In that moment, Cynthia forgave Don and found that with forgiveness, came her own freedom. Cynthia asks that Governor Lee do the same and spare Don’s life. 

Today Governor Lee received Don’s official request for a commutation of his death sentence.

Please visit Don Johnson’s clemency website and take action now on his behalf. 

 

Photo from Memphisflyer.com

 

Reflection and Gratitude

The last months have been tough ones for us in Tennessee with the executions of Billy Ray Irick, Edmund Zagorski, and most recently, David Miller. After nine years with no executions in our state and despite our best efforts to stop them, Tennessee executed three men in 2018 who had each been on death row for over thirty years.

As senseless and tragic as these executions are, they do nothing to change the reality that our death penalty system in Tennessee is morally bankrupt and broken beyond repair. In fact, they only amplify that reality. Our job now, as it has been, is to educate our fellow Tennesseans about that brokenness. We do that by listening to their concerns, taking those concerns seriously, giving them the information that they need to make informed choices, and providing them with the tools to take action.

And though our hearts too have been broken this year, both for those executed and for the surviving families of the murder victims, there is still good news even as we wrestle with the bad. The good news is that the death penalty continues its steady decline across the country and yes, even here in Tennessee.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) recently released its year-end report for 2018, highlighting that:

  • across the country, death sentences and executions remained near generational lows.
  • for the fourth year in a row, there were fewer than 30 executions and 50 death sentences.
  • for the 18th consecutive year, the population of death row declined.
  • Washington State abolished its death penalty, making it the 20th state to do so.

DPIC’s Executive Director Rob Dunham stated, “The clear long-term trend in the United States is away from the death penalty. That is evidenced by the continuing near-record low number of new death sentences and low number nationwide of executions.”

The report also notes that, here in Tennessee, juries handed down only one new death sentence this year. This statistic is in keeping with the death sentencing trends in our state over the past several years.

With more Tennesseans joining us in this work for repeal and with your commitment over the long haul, TADP can confidently say, even with executions resuming, that we are making progress.

Still, this work doesn’t happen overnight. You already know that. Others may be executed before we get there. But that doesn’t stop us. Together, we will end the death penalty in Tennessee because we don’t go it alone—never have, never will.

From the bottom of our hearts, we at TADP thank you for your work and witness in 2018. We look forward to what we can accomplish together in 2019 to move Tennessee away from the death penalty.

Read more about the DPIC Report.

Photo by Calvin Kimbrough at TADP’s vigil at West End UMC on November 1, 2018.

Washington State Repeals the Death Penalty While Edmund Zagorski Gets a 10-Day Reprieve

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.

Read more about Washington here.

 

Reflection and Thank You

Last week ended with the execution of Billy Ray Irick, a man with severe mental illness since childhood, a man whose case did not get a full and fair review by the courts. If it had, he wouldn’t be dead. Still the Governor insisted that he was treated fairly, despite the overwhelming evidence that he wasn’t. So now I find myself trying to come to terms with the reality that Tennessee’s nine-year hiatus from executing its citizens is over and that we are entering a new phase of our work.
Only five days after Billy Ray Irick was executed, Nebraska executed its first person since 1997. Only three year ago, Nebraska state lawmakers voted to repeal the death penalty. Governor Pete Ricketts then “helped finance a ballot drive to reinstate capital punishment after lawmakers overrode his veto,” as The Associated Press reported. He contributed $300,000 of his own money to a petition drive organized by several of his associates to get the issue on the November 2016 general election ballot. He was successful, and here we are.
Still, even as I acknowledge my utter disappointment and frustration with what has transpired over the last week, I can truthfully say that I remain hopeful… a bit bruised, but hopeful.
I shared the source of that hope with those who gathered at the vigil at Fisk Memorial Chapel on Thursday:
We gather, not as naïve people as we are sometimes portrayed to be…far from it. We know all too well the realities of violence. Some of us in this room have lost loved ones to murder and know the gaping wounds that such violence leaves in its wake. We gather because our hope is not grounded in some rose colored optimism that pretends that violence and death are not powerful or real. We know better than that. We gather because our hope is born from a source far greater than ourselves. This hope elicits from us a shared conviction that we are called to find real solutions to violence—identifying and meeting the needs of those who are abused, victimized, and traumatized, lifting up those who are impoverished and disenfranchised—with the understanding that if we do these things, our state will be far healthier and safer than if the best solution we can devise is to execute a man with severe mental illness 30 years after the crime.
I went on to say that, for me, as a person of faith, I believe that the Holy Spirit is on the move, even now. You may call Her something else–the spirit of justice or the higher good. But whatever you call Her, she breaks into this world, into the suffering, into the violence, into the injustice, and changes things. And though the change may be slow, it is sure.
And if you need evidence of the change, just step back and take a look at where we are. Executions and death sentencing are still at historic lows. Public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in 40 years. People from both sides of the aisle are speaking out about their concerns, with conservative voices publicly calling on Governor Haslam to stop Irick’s execution. Last week, even as emotions were running high, I had conversations with long-time death penalty supporters who told me that their minds have changed, that given the alternative sentences available to us in Tennessee, they just don’t see the need for the death penalty anymore.
And then there is you. Your commitment to repeal over the long haul is another reason we can say, even with the horrible events of this past week, that we are making progress. Billy Ray Irick’s execution does not change the reality that our death penalty system in Tennessee is morally bankrupt and broken beyond repair, it only amplifies that reality. Our job now, as it has been, is to assist our fellow Tennesseans in understanding that brokenness. We do that by listening to their concerns, taking those concerns seriously, giving them information that they need to make informed choices, and providing them with the tools to take action.
This work doesn’t happen overnight. You know that too. Others may be executed before we get there. But that doesn’t stop us from doing the work that is before us. Together, we will end the death penalty in Tennessee because we don’t go it alone. Never have, never will.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for every phone call, email, letter to the editor, Facebook post, tweet, and signature. Thank you for showing up and standing out in the heat. Thank you for your songs and silence, your thoughts and prayers. Thank you.

Tennessee’s Death Penalty Roller Coaster Makes Us All Sick

I am not a fan of roller coasters. As a kid, I tried to be. But after a few instances of losing my lunch, I decided they just weren’t my thing. And though I get that some folks find the amusement park versions to be thrilling, real life roller coasters tend to make us all a bit nauseous. The death penalty system is one of those real life roller coasters that the state of Tennessee is trying to ride again. So far, it is has been rough going. I can’t say that I am surprised.

In January of this year, Tennessee set an August 9th execution date for Billy Ray Irick after nearly ten years with no executions in the state. Mr. Irick committed a heinous crime, the rape and murder of a a little girl, Paula Dyer.  Mr. Irick is also a man who has had significant mental health issues since childhood, issues that were present at the time of the crime and about which his jury was never given accurate information. He has been on Tennessee’s death row for over 30 years.

Roughly a month after the state set Mr. Irick’s execution date, the Tennessee Attorney General (AG) then requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court set eight more execution dates before June 1st. What? Tennessee has executed only six people since 1960, and the AG wants eight executions in three months. Such a move is unprecedented in the modern era of the death penalty in our state.

Arkansas tried it though. The state attempted to execute eight men in 10 days last spring with swift condemnation coming from many corners. When all was said and done, Arkansas executed four of those men, doing so against the express wishes of the drug manufacturer whose product was used in the executions and while disregarding the very real concerns of the state’s corrections community about the detrimental mental health impact these executions could have on those ask to carry them out.

Then, in another twist, just a few days ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied the request of Tennessee’s AG to set these eight dates before June 1. But the Court did set two more execution dates, an Oct. 11 date for Edmond Zagorski and a Dec. 6 date for David Miller.  Anyone else feeling queasy?

All of these nine men have been in prison for decades, serving life sentences while waiting for death sentences to be carried out. The victims’ families have been trapped in capital litigation for the same amount of time, and though a few dates are now set, there is no guarantee that these executions will happen. And, if they do, will they give families the experience of justice that they were promised so long ago?

Taxpayers are still on the hook for propping up this colossal waste of tax dollars while those with opioid addiction and mental health issues in Tennessee may not be able to access treatment because our state doesn’t have enough resources to treat all who need it. And though none of us wants to believe that any of the 60 people sitting on Tennessee’s death row right now are actually innocent, the research says that some of them are.

Paul House was wrongfully convicted, spending nearly 23 years on Tennessee’s death row before his release. The petition that Paul has created asks Governor Haslam not to resume executions because what happened to him can and does happen to others. In fact, three other men also spent decades on Tennessee’s death row before their wrongful convictions were addressed. They were finally released after years of legal wrangling and despite the state’s best efforts to keep them there.

This real life roller coaster that is the death penalty is fraught with problems and always will be. It takes us on a terrifying ride that does nothing to make our communities safer and wastes resources that could be used to prevent violent crime. It is not fairly applied and too often only exposes victims’ families to more trauma as they wait for a sentence that may never be carried out.

It’s time. Let’s shut this thing down. The setting of these execution dates in Tennessee is increasingly out of step with the national trends away from the death penalty. Death sentencing and executions are at historic lows, and public support for the death penalty has dipped to levels not seen in 40 years. And, we have alternatives, like a life sentence (51 years before parole eligibility) and life without the possibility of parole, that are cheaper and don’t risk executing innocent people. Let’s promote a policy that supports victims’ families and offers them tools for healing. Let’s get smarter in using our resources to address the root causes of the violence in our communities so that we can prevent these horrible crimes from happening in the first place. Stop this ride that is making us all sick. End the death penalty in Tennessee.

 

 

Tennessee Must Not Resume Executions

Nearly 10 years have passed with no executions in Tennessee. With the ongoing controversy and legal challenges surrounding lethal injection, executions have been sporadically on-again, off-again for the last decade.  And even with an execution date now set, there is reason to believe that Billy Ray Irick, the man who is set to die on August 9, 2018, may not be mentally competent for the execution to occur. His case has wound through the courts for over 30 years, and still no legal finality.

The crime for which Mr. Irick was sentenced to death was heinous. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paul Dyer of Knoxville, for whom he was babysitting. Her family has obviously suffered unspeakable pain, and three decades of court dates and media stories forcing them to relive the trauma of their daughter’s death over and over again, have no doubt taken a toll. Even now, with this execution date on the calendar, nothing is sure.

Mr. Irick’s court appointed trial attorneys did little to investigate his long history of abuse and mental health issues and did not interview any of Paula’s step-family, with whom Mr. Irick was living just weeks before the murder. In 1999, when new attorneys appealed the case in federal court, an investigator finally spoke with Paula’s family who described Mr Irick as a man clearly in the throes of psychosis.

According to a recent article in the Nashville Scene, “In a brief filed in 2010, Irick’s attorneys argued that he ‘was experiencing a psychotic episode with hallucinations and/or delusions and that he has no memory of the offenses themselves or his role in them.’ Further, they contended that Irick did not, and could not, ‘have a rational understanding of his pending execution because he has no memory of the offenses, does not believe that he committed them, and has the emotional and social functioning of a child.’”  So, it stands to reason that Mr. Irick’s competency has been and will continue to be an issue in this case.

Beyond Mr. Irick, there are still 60 people awaiting execution on Tennessee’s death row, some who have been there as long as he has. Tennessee has executed six people since 1960 and occasionally sentences someone to death, though death sentencing in Tennessee is becoming more rare, as it is nationwide, with new death sentences in this country recently reaching a 40-year low.

Too often who ends up getting the death penalty in Tennessee has more to do with the defense you can afford, the color of your skin, the county in which you live, or your mental health status, than with the crime itself. Obviously such arbitrary factors should not determine whether you live or die in Tennessee, but too often, they do.

Add to these issues the real risk of executing an innocent person. Tennessee has executed six people since 1960 and released four others because we got it wrong…and those cases took decades to figure out. How many other innocent people are on death row right now? The system we have simply isn’t capable of ensuring that we get it right 100% of the time.

Given this reality, Tennessee death row exoneree Paul House has authored a petition asking that Governor Haslam not allow executions to resume in Tennessee, for Billy Ray Irick or for anyone else. Mr. House spent 22 years on death row before DNA evidence finally led to his release, and he knows better than anyone how real the risk of executing an innocent person is. With alternative sentencing like life and life without parole already available in Tennessee, pursuing executions is just not worth the risk.

Please sign and share this petition widely to demonstrate to Governor Haslam that as the nation moves away from executions, Tennessee should not move toward them. The risk is simply to great.

(Photo of Joyce and Paul House by Edward Tse)

 

 

Death Penalty Information Center’s Year End Report Shows Your Support Is Critical to the Death Penalty’s Decline

For another year, executions and death sentences remained historically low while public support for the death penalty dipped to its lowest level in 45 years. These findings from the Death Penalty Information Center’s (DPIC) recently released year end report also include that eight states carried out 23 executions, half the number of seven years ago, and the second lowest total since 1991. Only 2016’s numbers were lower with just 20 executions. Fourteen states and the federal government will likely impose 39 new death sentences by year’s end, the second lowest annual total since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.

DPIC Director Robert Dunham notes that, “Across the political spectrum, more people are coming to the view that there are better ways to keep us safe than executing a handful of offenders selected from a random death-penalty lottery. There will be times when numbers fluctuate – particularly following historic highs or lows – but the steady long-term decline in the death penalty since the 1990s suggests that in most of the country, the death penalty is becoming obsolete.”

Your support of TADP’s work in Tennessee is contributing to this changing view of the death penalty. TADP is educating Tennesseans from Memphis to Kingsport about the many reasons that the death penalty system cannot be trusted. From systemic problems with racial discrimination and lack of access to effective representation to the system’s exorbitant financial cost to taxpayers and emotional cost to victims’ families to the ongoing risk of wrongful conviction, the state’s death penalty system is broken beyond repair.

The DPIC report highlights the continued risk of executing the innocent as one of the key factors behind the public’s decrease in support for the death penalty. According to the Gallup poll, public support for the death penalty dropped by five percent in 2017, and Republicans registered a 10-percentage point drop since last year. This year’s 55 percent support marks the lowest level since 1972, just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the nation’s death penalty laws unconstitutional.

With your support of TADP, we will keep this trend moving in the right direction. Every dollar you invest allows us to get out this message of a broken system to more Tennesseans and to give them the tools to educate others, including lawmakers, about why our state can do better.

Please consider an investment in TADP and in the work to end the death penalty in our state.

Happy Holidays from all of us at TADP!

Read the DPIC report here.

 

The Time is Now to End the Death Penalty

The state of Ohio tried to execute Alva Campbell on Nov. 15. They failed to do so.

Mr. Campbell committed a heinous crime in 1997, murdering 18-year-old Charles Dials during a carjacking. Twenty years later, the 69-year-old Campbell has many serious illnesses, including lung cancer, COPD, and respiratory failure. He has had prostate cancer and a hip replacement. He needs daily oxygen treatments, uses a walker, and also has a colostomy bag.  These health issues were news to no one.  The officials overseeing the attempted execution even propped Mr. Campbell up on a pillow so he could breathe more easily as they tried to kill him.  After many unsuccessful attempts to find a vein to begin the lethal injection process, the process was stopped. His new execution date has been set for June 5, 2019, that is if he lives that long. But the problems with the nation’s execution protocols, as disturbing as they are, are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the death penalty system’s ongoing problems.

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has the opportunity to finally end this failed experiment of the death penalty. Forty-five years ago, SCOTUS temporarily struck down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. Now the court could decide to consider the case of Arizona death row inmate Abel Daniel Hidalgo, who is challenging the constitutionality of our nation’s death penalty because it continues to be as arbitrarily applied as it was in 1972.

Laurence H. Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University, recently submitted an op-ed to The Washington Post outlining his belief that the time has come for the court to act, writing, “After more than 40 years of experimenting with capital punishment, it is time to recognize that we have found no way to narrow the death penalty so that it applies only to the “worst of the worst.” It also remains prone to terrible errors and unacceptable arbitrariness. The Hidalgo case exemplifies the problems with our current capital punishment regimes, problems that several Supreme Court justices have expressed interest in addressing. It also presents these constitutional problems cleanly, without the procedural obstacles that sometimes dissuade  justices from hearing important constitutional cases. Instead of continuing, in the words of Justice Harry A. Blackmun, to “tinker with the machinery of death,” the court should hold the death penalty unconstitutional nationwide.”

Tinkering with the machinery of death is what this nation has been doing since 1972. From start to finish, the death penalty system is broken. It is time to end it.

Picture and additional article

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tale of Two Condemned

On October 12th, Texas executed a condemned man. The day before, Arkansas set one free.

Robert Pruett was sentenced to 99 years for a 1995 murder under Texas’ infamous “law of parties.” This controversial law states that anyone who “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid” a person who commits a crime is equally liable no matter how small a role he or she plays in that crime. In 1995, a man with a long prison record stabbed his neighbor to death outside his home. Mr. Pruett was present at the murder. The killer was Mr. Pruett’s father. Pruett himself was only 15 at the time.

While in prison at age 20, Mr. Pruett was accused of killing Correctional Officer Daniel Nagle and sentenced to death. He maintained his  innocence until his execution last week. His conviction relied largely on the testimony of other inmates, who allegedly made deals in exchange for their testimony. There was no physical evidence connecting Pruett to the murder. When the murder weapon was tested for forensic evidence, the test was inconclusive.

The day before Pruett’s execution, Texas’ neighbor Arkansas (a state which executed four men in 10 days this spring) quietly released Rickey Dale Newman from the state’s death row. Mr. Newman is now the 160th exonerated death row inmate in this country since 1973, spending nearly 17 years in custody for the 2001 murder of a transient woman in a “hobo park” on the outskirts of Van Buren, Arkansas.

Newman had a severe mental illness at the time of the crime. A former Marine with major depression, chronic posttraumatic stress disorder from childhood abuse, and an IQ in the intellectually disabled range, he was homeless when Marie Cholette was murdered. He was convicted and sentenced to death in June 2002 after a one-day trial in which the court permitted him to represent himself.

There was no physical evidence linking him to the murder. A prosecution expert falsely testified that a hair found on Newman’s clothing belong to Ms. Cholette. Mr. Newman also told the jury that he was guilty and should be executed. He went on to drop all his appeals. Just four days before he was scheduled to die in 2005, he allowed his federal public defenders to seek a stay of execution in order to test DNA evidence on the blanket in which the victim was found as well as the hair that was used to convict him. The DNA didn’t match. The attorneys also discovered that the prosecutors withheld crucial evidence from the murder scene that contradicted Mr. Newman’s account. A later federal court hearing uncovered that the state mental health doctor had made errors in the administration and scoring of the tests given to Mr. Newman pretrial to determine his mental competency.

Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne tweeted, “As Robert Pruett was being executed in Texas, Rickey Newman was being exonerated in Arkansas. It is a reminder that for every 9 executions, there’s been 1 exoneration. That’s not a good record. Can you imagine if 1 out of every 10 airplanes crashed?”

It defies logic that we as a society find these kind of statistics acceptable when an individual’s life is on the line. With alternative sentences available, why do we keep taking these risks when we know how flawed the system is?

How many of these cases do we have to read about before we decide the number is too high?  1 out of 10. Enough already.

Picture of Rickey Dale Newman from the Arkansas Times