Why All the Fuss?

The Tennessean web site recently posted a story concerning the Tennessee DA’s conference’s resistance to the extension of the legislative Committee currently studying the death penalty in Tennessee. James “Wally” Kirby, Executive Director of the District Attorney Generals Conference, is charging that the Committee is stacked with death penalty opponents and that the Committee’s true intent is to abolish the death penalty.

However, as Mr. Kirby who has attended most of the Committee meetings knows, that is not the case. Senator Doug Jackson, a pro-death penalty Democrat from Dickson, has reiterated from day one that the Committee’s charge is to examine the death penalty for fairness and accuracy. Abolition is not on the table.

Furthermore, the Committee’s representation was clearly spelled out in the legislation which created the Committee last year with representation appointed by the Governor, the Senate, the House, the DA’s, the Attorney General, various defense attorney organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Tennessee Justice Project (a reform oriented organization) and victims rights organizations. Where were Mr. Kirby’s protests during the discussion and passage of that legislation through the General Assembly?

No one would be more excited than me if this Committee were planning to abolish the death penalty, but they are not. As an abolitionist, what I hope that the Committee will do is thoroughly and completely examine this system to ensure that if Tennessee is going to have a penalty which takes a human life that, at the least, the state does it as fairly and as accurately as possible.

The DA’s fuss about this study strikes me as “protesting too much.” Perhaps the real truth of the matter is that Mr. Kirby does realize how broken the system is and worries that if it is scrutinized, significant changes will have to be made. After all, if the system is working well, then what is the harm in studying it? I liken the DA’s backward logic here to someone who won’t go to the doctor for a physical for fear the doctor will want to treat him if a problem is detected…better not to go to the doctor and hope for the best.

According to the article, some members of the Committee are offended by Kirby’s charges. I can’t say that I blame them. I have been in attendance at every Committee meeting thus far and what I have observed is a group of thoughtful people who are concerned that Tennessee’s death penalty system is as fairly and accurately administered as possible. I don’t agree with every person’s position who is on the Committee, but I respect the work that they are doing and want them to have the time to do it. Frankly, should citizens expect any less?

Since 1973, 128 people have been released from death rows nationwide after evidence of their innocence emerged. Michael McCormick of Tennessee became 125 last year when a Chattanooga jury found him not guilty in a new trial after he spent 15 years on death row. Paul House still waits for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to decide if he will be retried or released after spending 22 years on Tennessee’s death row for a crime which new evidence indicates he didn’t commit. Last year, Governor Bredesen commuted Michael Boyd’s death sentence to life without parole after acknowledging the lack of adequate defense in his case.

The death penalty is broken, and everyone, including the District Attorneys Conference, should be concerned. If all is well with Tennessee’s death penalty, let the Committee do its work and affirm its effectiveness. And, if the system is broken, let the Committee make some desperately needed changes in order to make sure that Tennessee doesn’t execute an innocent person.

Read the article here.

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