Myths vs. Facts


MYTH

The death penalty is fair.

FACT

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.

A 2007 American Bar Association study conducted on capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981-2000 found that defendants with white victims were 3.15 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants with black 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 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.

Approximately 44% 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 strongly supports the death penalty.

FACT

According to the results of a Gallup poll released on October 26, 2017, “Americans’ support for the death penalty has dipped to a level not seen in 45 years.” The polling found that 55% of Americans said they are “in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder,” down from a reported 60% in October 2016. The five percentage-point decline represented an 8% decrease in the level of support for the death penalty nationwide and demonstrates, according to Gallup, “continue[s] a trend toward diminished death penalty support” in the United States. The 2017 results show the lowest level of support for the death penalty in the U.S. since March 1972—just before the June 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia declared the nation’s death-penalty laws unconstitutional—and was 25 percentage points below the peak of 80% of Americans who said in September 1994 that they supported in the death penalty. In September 2016, a Pew Research Center poll also measured support for the death penalty at the lowest level in 45 years, with 49% of Americans saying they supported the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.

The 2017 Gallup results also reflected a steep drop among Republicans in support for the death penalty. While 72% of Republicans say they favor capital punishment,  support among Republicans fell by ten percentage points, from 82% just before the presidential election in October 2016. Death-penalty support has also plummeted 26 percentage points among Democrats—a 40% decline—since 2002, when 65% told Gallup they favored capital punishment.

 


MYTH

The death penalty system doesn’t make mistakes.

FACT

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%).

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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