Myths vs. Facts


The death penalty is fair.


Since 1990, no inmate on Tennessee’s death row could afford to retain his or her own defense counsel. Prior to 1990, the overwhelming majority could also not afford counsel. (The Tennessee Justice Project Report, 2007).

Even though blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers, over 75% of executions since the death penalty was reinstated were for murders involving white victims.

In a 2012 report, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) looked at jury selection procedures in eight Southern states, including Tennessee. EJI uncovered shocking evidence of racial discrimination in every state, 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.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction and sentence of Georgia death row inmate, Timothy Foster, when it was discovered that in the jury selection process, the prosecution struck all of the potential African American jurors from service, a practice which is unconstitutional but hard to prove.

Texas death row inmate Duane Buck Duane Buck, had his 1995 death sentence reduced to life in prison by Harris County prosecutors after appeals that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court based on allegations of racist testimony from an expert witness who had claimed Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black.

In a motion on behalf of Johnny B. Gates filed in Georgia on March 19, 2018, handwritten notes by prosecutors were revealed which described prospective African-American jurors as “slow,” “ignorant,” “con artist” and “fat.” Prosecutors also jotted a “B” or an “N” next to black people’s names on jury lists with the intent to exclude black people from juries in seven death-penalty cases against black defendants in the 1970s.

Almost half of Tennessee’s death row comes from one county in Tennessee: Shelby. Half the counties in Tennessee never seek the death penalty.

Mental Health America, a leading mental health group, estimates that 20% of death row inmates suffer from severe mental illness.

To learn more about an effort to exclude individuals with severe mental illness from Tennessee’s death penalty, visit


The penalty ensures justice for surviving family members of murder victims.


The current system can drag families through a lengthy process (average of 28 years in Tennessee) that holds out the promise of an execution, but often results in a different sentence. To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. Sentences of life or life without parole begin as soon as victims’ families leave the courtroom and are served anonymously, outside the spotlight of the news cameras.


Executions are cheaper than life imprisonment.


In a 2004 Tennessee Comptroller’s Report, the Office of Research was unable to determine the comprehensive cost of Tennessee’s death penalty system because the data was not centralized. However, the report still concludes that overall, first-degree murder cases in which a notice to seek death is filed cost more than life without the possibility of parole cases.

  • This report also found that death penalty trials cost an average of 48% more than the average cost of trials in which a life sentence is pursued.
  • A New Jersey study found, between 1983 and 2005, taxpayers paid $253 million MORE for the death penalty system than for a system with life without parole as its maximum sentence. New Jersey had a death row of 10 inmates and executed no one in that time period. Tennessee has a death row of 63 and has executed six in the modern era.
  • States like Maryland, Kansas, and North Carolina also found that the death penalty costs taxpayers millions more to maintain than life without parole.


Public opinion strongly supports the death penalty.


According to the results of a Gallup poll conducted in October 2019, for the first time in Gallup’s 34-year trend, a majority of Americans say that life imprisonment without parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty is. The 60% to 36% advantage for life imprisonment indicates a dramatic shift over the past twenty years. During the 1908s and 1990s, consistent majorities thought the death penalty was the better option for murderers.

Since a 2014 Gallup plea asking Americans to choose between life imprisonment without parole and the death penalty, alley subgroups show increased preferences for life imprisonment, including increases of 19 points among Democrats, 16 points among independents, and 10 points among Republicans.



The death penalty system doesn’t make mistakes.


Since 1973, over 160 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated and freed from death row when evidence of their innocence emerged, including three in Tennessee.

  • in 2007, Michael McCormick was found not guilty in a new trial after spending nearly 20 years fighting his conviction and death sentence.
  • Paul House served on Tennessee’s death row for nearly 23 years, though evidence (including DNA), indicated his wrongful conviction. All charges against him were dropped in 2009.
  • With approximately 1,400 executions nationwide in the modern era, statistics indicate that for roughly every ten executions, one person has been exonerated. Only 20 of the 156 death row exonerations were based on DNA evidence (13%).


The death penalty deters crime.


  • Researchers continue to find flaws in studies claiming deterrence effect. A report released on April 18, 2012, by the National Research Council of the National Academies based on a review of more than three decades of research concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. The report stated:

“The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a speciFied amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.”(D. Nagin and J. Pepper, “Deterrence and the Death Penalty,” Committee on Law and Justice at the National Research Council, April 2012)

  • According to a 2009 survey of the former and present presidents of the nation’s top academic criminological societies appearing in Northwestern University’s School of Law Journal, 88% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide.

  • A 2008 poll by Death Penalty Information Center surveyed 500 U.S. police chiefs and found that when asked to name one area as “most important for reducing violent crime,” greater use of the death penalty ranked last among police chiefs with only 1% listing it as the best way to reduce violence.