Forty Years After Furman

Today marks 40 years since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Furman v. Georgia, which found the application of the death penalty to be so arbitrary that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Potter Stewart even likened receiving a death sentence to being struck by lightning. Four years later when the death penalty was reinstated, new sentencing procedures were supposed to make the system fairer and less arbitrary. But 40 years later, the death penalty system is as flawed as ever.

How can the death penalty be anything but arbitrary when factors such as the  quality of defense counsel, the race of the victim, and the county in which one is charged, continue to wield so much influence on who is sentenced to death? Evidence of arbitrariness is everywhere: 90% of Tennessee death row inmates were unable to hire their own defense at trial; a person is at least 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white; and approximately 40% of the inmates on Tennessee’s death row come from one county—Shelby–while half of the state’s counties have never sentenced anyone to death.

The system is so broken that the risk of executing an innocent person remains frighteningly real. Just last month, Columbia University law professor James Liebman published results of a comprehensive investigation into the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in Texas in 1989. Professor Liebman concluded that DeLuna was almost certainly innocent and had been wrongly convicted “on the thinnest of evidence: a single, nighttime, cross-ethnic eyewitness identification and no corroborating forensics.”

Nationwide 140 inmates have been released from death rows when evidence of their innocence emerged, including 3 men in Tennessee. Michael McCormick and Paul House of Tennessee both spent 20 years each fighting their wrongful convictions before finally winning their freedom.

Across the country, states are moving away from the death penalty. In the last five years, five states have repealed this failed policy. TADP is working hard to educate more Tennesseans about just how broken this system is and to organize them to act.  We can’t wait on the courts to get involved but must get the word out in our local communities and reach out to our elected officials to tell them that it is time for the death penalty to go.

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