On Friday, Leonard Edward Smith, a man who has been on and off Tennessee’s death row for decades for the 1984 murder of Novella Webb, a Sullivan County grocery store co-owner, had his sentence reduced to life in prison.
Two retrials that ended in death sentences followed Smith’s initial trial and death sentence. Of the three accomplices, Smith was the only one to receive the death penalty. One received a life sentence, and the other a 25-year sentence in return for testifying against the other two. Last year, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Smith should receive a new sentencing hearing because his attorneys never attempted to have the judge from an earlier sentencing hearing recused, even though the judge had been a former prosecutor who prosecuted Smith for robbery years earlier. The Court also ordered a new hearing to determine if Smith had an intellectual disability, which would exempt him from the death penalty.
After three capital trials, the Sullivan County District Attorney Barry P. Staubus decided against pursuing the death penalty again. Novella Webb’s family agreed since, after decades of legal wrangling, they wanted this ordeal to end and to get some legal finality.
Twenty-seven years and untold amounts of taxpayer dollars later (according to a 2004 report by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office a capital trial costs 48 percent more than non-capital trial), Smith received a life sentence–a sentence he could have been given in 1985. Instead, the victim’s family has had to endure the agony of three capital trials and years of pain and uncertainty. Tennessee can do better for victims’ families and for all Tennesseans, by putting an end to this costly, broken system and replacing it with one that still holds offenders accountable, provides more legal finality, and redirects resources to needed services and programs that provide for public safety.
(Photo courtesy of aafe.org)
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