Tennessee Gubernatorial Candidates and the Death Penalty

Tennessee’s gubernatorial candidates are not talking about Governor Bredesen’s recent commutation of Gaile Owens’ death sentence, though all of them have stated their support of the death penalty.

In yesterday’s Tennessean, the candidates share their thoughts concerning the broader issue of the death penalty and those factors that might influence their future decisions.  Candidates highlight the importance of respecting a jury’s decision, the length of the appeals process to sort out problems, and the presentation of new evidence.

However, these particular factors do not fully take into account the serious process issues currently inflicting the death penalty system in our state. Case after case demonstrates that a number of juries do not receive all the facts at trial often because of ineffective assistance of counsel (particularly for indigent defendants) or because evidence may be withheld from the defense until years later.  How can we have faith in a jury’s verdict if the jury isn’t given all the facts?   

As to the lengthy appeals process, the appeals court only reviews the trial record.  Again, if certain evidence or issues are not addressed at trial, the appeals court does not have to consider them.  And, if new evidence does become available, it may take years to get a court to hear that evidence, as in the case of Paul House.  House had DNA evidence available in the 1990’s indicating his innocence, but no court would consider it until the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the matter in 2006.  Still, it was 2009 before his conviction was thrown out and all charges were dropped after 23 years on death row.

I understand the candidates’ reluctance to comment on Governor Bredesen’s decision on Owens’ case as they respect that he is the current Governor, and the decision was his to make.  However, if one only relies on a jury’s verdict or the appeals process to address the critical issues at play in some of these cases (as the candidates seem to indicate they would),  justice will not always be achieved.  The fact remains that in the Owens’ case, the jury never received critical information which was available at the time of the trial (not new evidence) and that the courts considered her appeals for 24 years without offering any remedy for the egregious problems in her case, including the utter disproportionality of her sentence compared with similar cases.  In Owens’ case as with others, the Governor was the last hope for addressing the issues of fairness that must be addressed if we are to have any faith that the system is working for every Tennessean.   

Rep. Zach Wamp, one of the four gubernatorial candidates, stated in the recent debate that ruling on death penalty cases is “the toughest thing that a governor can be called to do.”  I fully agree with Rep. Wamp, which makes it all the more important for the next Governor to gather all the necessary information to make the most informed decisions in these cases, including the failures of the system as a whole.

My hope is that whoever is ultimately elected to serve as Governor of our state will be open to learning as much as possible about Tennessee’s death penalty system from all viewpoints and will consider the real failures and costs of the current system to ensure that Tennesseans have a policy that is not simply tough but effective. 

Read the article here.

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