Myths vs. Facts


MYTH

The death penalty is fair.

FACT

Roughly 85% of Tennessee’s death row could not afford to pay for defense at trial.

A study conducted on capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981-2000 found that defendants charged with the murder of a white person were 3.15 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants charged with the murder of a black person (American Bar Association’s Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report, 2007).

Approximately 40% 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.


MYTH

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

FACT

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.


MYTH

Executions are cheaper than life imprisonment.

FACT

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.

MYTH

Public opinion supports the death penalty.

FACT

In 2016, a Pew Research Center Survey found that only 49% of Americans now support the death penalty while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped seven percentage points just since March 2015. In 2007, the American Bar Association (ABA) issued a report outlining 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate death penalty system. Tennessee fully complied with only seven. In a poll conducted by the ABA that same year, 66% of Tennesseans supported a moratorium on the death penalty in order for the system’s problems to be addressed.


MYTH

The death penalty system doesn’t make mistakes.

FACT

Since 1973, over 155 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%).

MYTH

The death penalty deters crime.

FACT

Studies show that the death penalty does not deter homicide any more than other punishments, such as life without parole.

  • Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to homicide (Radelet and Lacock, 2009).
  • 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.

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