Fairness at Stake

The Tennessee study committee met for two days this week and heard a variety of testimony from local and national witnesses on the state of the death penalty in Tennessee. A few highlights:

  • Libby Sykes, from the Administrative Office of the Courts which oversees the Indigent Defense Fund in TN, testified that since 2000, the funding for indigent defense in this state has continued to decline and is currently $1,000,000 less than it was in 2000.
  • The last increase in the hourly wage for attorneys defending indigent clients was made in 1997. Currently the rates are $60-80 per hour for out of court work and $100 for in court work (not even enough to cover overhead expenses). Compare that rate to the billing rate for law associates only 5 years out of law school working for private firms, whose average hourly rate is $210.
  • The average fee claim for an appointed attorney working for an adult charged with a felony was $529, which means that attorneys worked, on the average, less than 13 hours on any particular case.
  • Robert Spangenberg, a national researcher on indigent defense, stated that in Tennessee the prosecution receives about 3 times the resources that the defense does.

After hearing all this testimony, Senator Jackson commented that “in the Pledge of Allegiance, we state ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ But, it seems that we are only willing to pay for so much for that.”

In yesterday’s meeting, Tom Lee, a committee member and private attorney in Nashville, gave a powerful statement concerning the fairness of the death penalty system given these financial realities. He noted the unfairness to the poor, to people of color, and to those with mental illness. Another committee member added that either the state needs to pay to make the system fair for everyone or the system needs to go.

I couldn’t have said it better myself

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