A Tale of Two Cases and One Horribly Broken System

There are not many things that inspire me to wake up at 5:00 a.m. My grandmother used to say that the good Lord didn’t intend us to be up before there was light to see by, and I took her words to heart. Still, I had to make the drive from Nashville to Memphis on Monday to get to the Shelby County Courthouse by 9:00 a.m. when arguments would be made in the Sedley Alley case.

Mr. Alley was convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins in Shelby County. He confessed to the crime after a police interrogation that lasted for hours but later admitted that he had no memory of the night of the crime because of his heavy drinking. Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false as key details in his statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence.

Other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts also raise questions about Mr. Alley’s guilt. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s vehicle. Shoe prints at the scene did not match Mr. Alley’s shoes. A key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described the man as 5’6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-length hair, and a light complexion.

But even with all of this questionable evidence, the state had the confession and forged ahead. Numerous items of evidence from the crime scene that were in the State’s custody were never tested for DNA, including men’s red underwear found near Ms. Collins’s body that police believed were worn by her attacker.

In 2006, just prior to the Mr. Alley’s execution, even the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole recommended the State do the testing. But then-Governor Bredesen did not take action. Instead, he punted the decision to the state courts, which refused the testing.

On June 28, 2006, Sedley Alley was executed by the State of Tennessee. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court admitted the ruling in Mr. Alley’s case was wrong and overruled it in State v. Powers.

In another plot twist only a few months ago, the Innocence Project received a letter from law enforcement sources in St. Louis informing them that a man named Thomas Bruce is now under indictment there for homicide and rape. The letter indicated that they believe this man might be a serial offender. After law enforcement looked into Mr. Bruce’s background and the places that he previously lived, they discovered that he was taking courses at the same Avionics Training School in Millington as Ms. Collins in the months prior to her murder.

Once Sedley Alley’s daughter, April Alley, who is also the executor of his estate, became aware of this new information, she petitioned the Criminal Court for Shelby County for the post-conviction DNA testing. She has also requested that Governor Lee order the DNA testing pursuant to his power to grant posthumous pardons.

I did make it to the hearing just in time for the proceedings. I heard attorneys Barry Scheck and Stephen Ross Johnson make a powerful case for the testing. I heard three death row exonerees, also present for the hearing, tell the media why DNA testing is so critical to ensure that innocent people are not executed and to get to the truth in this case. I also heard the Shelby County Assistant DA argue that the law only allows the person convicted of the crime to request testing, not his or her estate, so the testing should not be allowed.

This is the State’s argument? So the Tennessee court okays the execution of Sedley Alley without allowing him DNA testing, reverses the decision five years after his execution, and now the State argues that for testing to occur now, Mr. Alley has to request it. The State does know that it executed him, right?

This ridiculous argument led the Johnson City Press Editorial staff to write, “Of all the preposterous legal situations we’ve read about in recent years, an effort this week to halt a DNA inquiry in a Tennessee execution review might just take the cake.” Amen to that.

Obviously, we don’t know what the testing will show…precisely why we need it. But regardless of the results, the testing will get us closer to the truth. The truth is all that April Alley wants. And we all should want the truth too, not just because it is what our justice system is supposed to be about but also because it might identify another person as the perpetrator of this crime, a person who has been out there since 1985 possibly committing other heinous crimes.

This push for DNA testing comes at the same time that the Tennessee Attorney General has requested that nine more execution dates be set and made an unprecedented move to appeal a decision made by Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk to reduce Abu Ali Abudur’Rahman’s death sentence to life. General Funk agreed to this new sentence because of the overt racism and prosecutorial misconduct that infected Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s trial. In appealing the decision made by an elected DA and approved by a judge, the State has demonstrated yet again, as it has in Mr. Alley’s case, that what it is actually defending is not justice but maintaining a conviction, not truth but a broken process.

Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s attorney Brad MacLean shared the same sentiment at the conclusion of the press conference about Abu Ali’s case last Friday:

The AG claims he is upholding the ‘rule of law’. Our question is what rule of law is he talking about? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a racist prosecutor to use race in jury selection? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a prosecutor to be dishonest? Is he talking about a rule that says our criminal justice system cannot correct a grave error? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK to inflict cruel and unusual punishment? Is he talking about a rule that says a district attorney general is not to gain justice, but rather he is to pursue a victory at any cost? Those are not our rules of law.

As citizens, we must impress upon Governor Lee that Tennessee’s death penalty cannot be trusted. These two cases bear witness to that fact. In the interest of truth and justice, all executions must be stopped in Tennessee so that our state can take a long, hard look at the current process, examining it from top to bottom. A comprehensive, independent analysis of this system must be conducted before any other person is put to death in Tennessee. Justice demands nothing less.

 

So Many Questions

It has been a week since Don Johnson was executed. The question of whether or not Governor Lee would grant clemency hung over us in Tennessee until late into the afternoon on Tuesday, May 14. Then the answer came, “No.”

So many of us, including Don’s stepdaughter Cynthia Vaughn, whose mother, Connie, was the victim of Don’s crime, pled for mercy. His church family at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church prayed for mercy, holding a prayer service a week ago Saturday in front of the State Capitol, asking Governor Lee to consider Don’s transformation in prison, a transformation made possible through Don’s Christian faith.

There were questions about what it would take to convince the governor to act on Don’s behalf. There was tension and stress, and even disagreement about what we should do as the state moved towards this execution. Cynthia, whose journey to forgive Don had taken her decades, was getting more and more questions. She was publicly pitted against her own brother, who just days before the execution, came out in support of it.

Voices on social media became more agitated and in some cases, meaner, the closer we got to the date. Those who loved and visited Don on death row became more desperate. Don’s attorneys worked night and day to stop this execution. Nerves were frayed, and emotions raw.

For all the questions that surround the death penalty, the question of what it does to us becomes obvious as any execution approaches, regardless of whether we support it or oppose it. The death penalty ties us in knots. It stokes our fears and our baser instincts. It teases and torments. It kills, but not only the inmates. Every time an execution occurs, no matter if we question it or justify it, part of us dies too.

Don’s execution demonstrated once again the emptiness of this ritual.

Don was not an unremorseful person who denied his involvement in his wife’s murder or blamed others for what he did. He acknowledged his role, took responsibility, and offered a public apology. He was ready to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars for his actions. He didn’t ask for freedom.

Don wasn’t angry at the world, the corrections staff, or the governor, though he could have been. Don was a man changed by the love he came to know through his encounter with Jesus Christ behind prison walls and that love made him new. Don was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church twenty years ago, ministered to inmates and folks on the outside, and served as a light on the inside, even refusing a special last meal and asking that those living on the streets be fed instead. Don’s life since his incarceration didn’t fit the stereotype. Who was “the monster” in this story?

Governor Lee made the decision to allow Don’s execution to proceed. Don accepted the decision. Don’s ultimate faith was in God and not in the governor anyway, though he had hoped for a different outcome. It wasn’t to be.

And so another question, “What has changed?”

Don Johnson is dead. Connie Johnson is dead. Correctional staff, attorneys, communities of faith, friends, media witnesses, even members of Connie’s family are now likely traumatized by what we did on May 16, whether they know it or not. Are the scales of justice finally balanced now?

And what about our state? Are we better off?

How did Don’s execution make us safer?

How did it help to prevent future crimes?

Did anyone gain better access to mental and behavioral health care because of Don’s execution?

Did Don’s death offer any avenues for more and better intervention in the lives of children who are exposed to horrible trauma and abuse as he was?

Did one more police officer or correctional officer receive better training or an increase in pay?

Did Don’s death help Cynthia to heal?

Did it address the division in Connie’s family?

Did it make death row safer for correctional staff and inmates?

Did it model respect for the dignity of life?

These are some of the questions that I am left with a week later. And though I don’t pretend that the issue isn’t complicated, I don’t think the answers to these questions are.

For now, though, we will likley go on pretending that we don’t know these answers because if we admit that we do, we would have to end the death penalty.

But the questions aren’t going away. We will keep asking them over and over again. And more people will join us and start asking these questions too as they learn how broken and morally bankrupt the death penalty system really is.

Questions and more questions and more questions until those with the power to stop these executions decide to give us honest answers. Until then, we will keep asking.

Photo from Saturday, May 11, Prayer Service 

 

Test the DNA: Sedley Alley’s Daughter Deserves to Know the Truth

Today, April Alley, the daughter of Sedley Alley, announced that she is petitioning the Shelby County Criminal Court in Memphis for post-conviction DNA testing of the evidence in her father’s case. Ms. Alley is also asking Governor Bill Lee to use his executive authority to order DNA testing of the untested evidence.

Tennessee executed Sedley Alley in 2006 after he was convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins. DNA evidence from the crime scene was not tested in 1985 and has never been tested. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and Vanessa Potkin, post-conviction litigation director for the Innocence Project, represent Ms. Alley.

A press conference with April Alley, Barry Scheck, and Vanessa Potkin was held today in Nashville to inform the public about this petition. Sabrina Butler Smith and Ray Krone, death row exonerees and members of Witness to Innocence, also spoke. Both Mr. Krone and Mrs. Butler Smith now live in Tennessee and frequently share their stories of wrongful conviction through TADP’s Sharing Our Stories program. Paul House and his mother Joyce, had hoped to be in attendance today, but Mr. House was unable to attend because of his health. He developed multiple sclerosis on Tennessee’s death row, which went untreated for many years. Mr. House was released after nearly 23 years on death row after DNA evidence demonstrated that he was wrongfully convicted.  

Tennessee Federal Defender Kelley Henry, who worked on Sedley Alley’s case before his execution, as well as Tennessee attorney Stephen Ross Johnson were also on hand to speak about this case and the lingering questions of innocence that could be resolved if the DNA is tested. 

Ms. Alley, the executor of her father’s estate, broke down at the conference as she tried to speak. Her request is simple: to find out   the truth by testing the DNA. Every Tennessean should want to know the truth in this case, including the Shelby County DA’s office and the governor. 

“There has never been a full and fair hearing on Mr. Alley’s guilt or innocence. This case has all the tell-tale signs of a wrongful conviction – a confession that has been demonstrated to be false by objective forensic evidence, mistaken eyewitness identification, and, most disturbing, the refusal to test DNA evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Alley or removed the doubts about his guilt,” said Mr. Scheck.

In 2006, on the eve of Mr. Alley’s execution, the Tennessee Board of Parole recommended that then-Governor Bredesen stay Mr. Alley’s execution and order DNA testing. Instead of exercising his power to order DNA testing, the governor directed Mr. Alley’s defense team to present their request for testing to the Tennessee court

Many items of evidence were presented for testing, including men’s red underwear that the police believed was worn by the murderer found near the victim’s body. Then-available DNA testing might have excluded Mr. Alley as the perpetrator or provided a match with another man in the CODIS DNA database. The Tennessee courts incorrectly ruled that Mr. Alley was not entitled to DNA testing, even if the testing could produce a match to a third party with a history of committing similar offenses. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court expressly overruled Mr. Alley’s case in State v. Powers and clarified that Tennessee’s post-conviction DNA statute intended to allow a defendant to prove innocence by comparing DNA from a defendant to DNA from other potentially guilty people, including hits from the CODIS DNA databank.

Barry Scheck reiterated at today’s press conference, “The courts got it wrong in 2006 when they allowed Mr. Alley to be executed before testing the DNA. If Mr. Alley were alive today, he would be entitled to DNA testing under the Powers ruling and the plain language of the post-conviction DNA analysis statute. We now have a chance to learn the truth in this case.”

The Petition for post-conviction DNA relief details how a reinvestigation of the case over the years has shown that the evidence against Mr. Alley was weak.

For example, Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false. Key details in Mr. Alley’s statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence. For instance, Mr. Alley’s confession states that he hit the victim with his car. Autopsy records show that Ms. Collins was not hit by a car. Mr. Alley’s confession states that he stabbed Ms. Collins in the head with a screwdriver. Autopsy records show that she was not stabbed in the head with a screwdriver. Mr. Alley told his daughter that he was coerced into confessing. He was highly intoxicated on the night of the crime, had no recollection of committing the crime, and did not believe he had done it.

Other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts do not match Mr. Alley. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s car. Recovered shoe prints were not from Mr. Alley’s shoes. A key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described that man as 5’ 6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-long hair, and a light complexion. 

The Innocence Project began looking for evidence in this case again because they recently received a tip from law enforcement that someone who was indicted for a brutal murder and sexual assault in another state might be the actual perpetrator in the Alley case. This person went to the same military school as the Tennessee victim in the time leading up to the crime. There is also evidence about a jilted boyfriend who was an alternate suspect. 

The media is covering this announcement and we will get you more information as it become available. If you want to learn more about this case, read the New York Times piece that was published today.

Share the story on Facebook and Tweet about it with the hashtag #TesttheDNA

 

 

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)