The Death Penalty Provides Neither Swift nor Sure Justice

An article that appeared in today’s Bristol Herald Courier details the case of Nickolus Johnson, a Tennessee death row inmate who was sentenced to death in 2007 for the 2004 killing of Bristol Police Officer Mark Vance.  According to his attorney, Johnson is only in the beginning of his appeals process. The victim’s mother, Karen Vance, says that the process has been far too long already. Unfortunately, the reality is that the appeals process in death cases goes on for many years -even decades- putting victims families through further court dates, uncertainty, and pain.

Often those who support the death penalty argue that the lengthy process should be expedited and that it is ridiculous that it takes decades for an execution to take place after a defendant is convicted and sentenced. In Tennessee, inmates serve an average length of 22 years on death row. Such a lengthy process serves no one. However, given our fallible and convoluted system, it often takes decades to determine if someone has been wrongfully convicted.

Since 1973, 140 people have been released from death rows nationwide when evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged, three of which have been in Tennessee. In two of these Tennessee cases, it took over 20 years each for DNA evidence, demonstrating the wrongful convictions of these men, to be considered by a court.  Given the multitude of problems in these cases- inadequate counsel, mistaken eyewitness testimony,  etc.- these 140 exonerees’ lives literally depended on this appeals process. In a 2007 American Bar Association (ABA) report that outlined 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate system, Tennessee fully complied with only seven. Such results hardly give us confidence that the system is working properly.

The current system drags families like the Vances through an agonizing process, and change is desperately needed. But, because the system is not able to always get it right, the only effective solution is to repeal the death penalty, making life without parole the maximum punishment in Tennessee. Doing so would provide swifter justice for victims’ families, eliminate the risk of executing innocent people, save taxpayers millions of dollars, and still ensure public safety.

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