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How Broken Can it Be? The Cases of Duane Buck and Andrew Thomas

I have been involved with working to end the death penalty in some capacity now for over twenty years now. One would think after all this time, I would cease to be surprised by the things I discover about just how flawed the system is. And just when I think I have heard it all, I am proven wrong again.

Take the case of Duane Buck. On February 22, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6 to 2 decision that the Texas death row inmate would receive a new sentencing hearing. It seems that in the sentencing phase of Mr. Buck’s original trial, a psychologist testified to the jury that black defendants were more dangerous than white ones. And ironically, the psychologist was testifying on behalf of the defense.

Mr. Buck’s lawyers presented a report from the psychologist, Walter Quijano, who said that race was a factor to consider in determining future dangerousness of a defendant. Mr. Buck’s lawyer asked Dr. Quijano to elaborate. Dr. Quijano testified, saying, “It’s a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.” A prosecutor then asked a follow up question: “The race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons — is that correct?” Dr. Quijano answered, “Yes.”

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion awarding Mr. Buck a new sentencing hearing,

“Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are. Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.

Then on Friday, February 24, Tennessee death row inmate Andrew Thomas was awarded a new trial on his state conviction by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Thomas, who was given a death sentence for the murder of armored truck guard James Day in Memphis (a man who died two year after the robbery), was awarded a new trial when the court found that Thomas’ prosecutor had a duty to disclose that an important witness had been paid prior to the trial.

According to the Commercial Appeal, the judges keyed in on part of the case in which now-Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, who prosecuted Thomas, questioned the witness, Thomas’ former girlfriend Angela Jackson. Jackson denied being paid.

“Have you collected one red cent for this?” Weirich asked Jackson, according to a trial transcript.

“No, ma’am,” Jackson replied. “I have not.”

The judges said in the ruling that the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the evidence was “egregious.”

“This is all made even worse by the fact that the prosecutor failed to correct the record even after Jackson squarely denied receiving any ‘reward’ money in exchange for her testimony against Thomas,” the court said.

The ruling in the Thomas case comes as Weirich is also facing professional ethics charges by the Tennessee Board of Professional responsibility alleging misconduct in a separate case — the 2009 prosecution of Noura Jackson in the death of her mother, Jennifer Jackson. A hearing on those charges is scheduled for March. Also of concern in the Jackson case is the prosecution’s failure to turn over a witness statement to Jackson’s attorneys until after the trial.

In another case in 2014, Weirich denied knowledge of an envelope in the murder trial of Vern Braswell. Defense attorney Lauren Fuchs alleged that another lawyer, who had worked on the case previously, found an envelope marked with Weirich’s initials and “Do not show defense.”

Both the Buck and Thomas cases demonstrate just why we cannot trust the death penalty system to fairly and accurately determine who lives and who dies. These cases highlight again that no matter how much we work to improve the system, fallible human beings are not capable of being fair and accurate 100% of the time. There are too many factors in play. Taking a person’s life, when we already have cheaper alternatives to protect society and hold offenders accountable, has no place is such a system.

Read more about Duane Buck’s case.

Read more about Andrew Thomas’ case.

Photo of Andrew Thomas from the Commercial Appeal

The Value Life

I am a Catholic and a conservative. As such, I believe in the dignity and  equality of every human life; a belief that the founders of our nation also claimed when they wrote that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Though it has taken us years as a nation to live up to these ideals, and we are not there yet, our founders believed that such rights are rights to which our nation should aspire.

Pope John Paul II wrote in Solictude Rei Socialis, “At stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator.”

Pope Francis then expanded on his predecessor’s thoughts  saying, “There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its non-material goods: life, which is a gift of God, a value always to be protected and promoted; the family, the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation; integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for purposes of generating profit; health, which must seek the integral well-being of the person, including the spiritual dimension, essential for human balance and healthy coexistence; security, in the conviction that violence can be overcome only by changing human hearts.”

The death penalty simply does not fit within the framework of human dignity and equality, both deeply held convictions of my faith and of our nation. The death penalty destroys life, harms surviving murder victims’ families by dragging them through the court system for decades with little hope of legal finality while traumatizing the families of the executed who broke no law themselves, never mind that it risks executing innocent people which can never, under any circumstances, be called justice. It wastes millions of dollars that could be used in the prevention of crime, compensation for victims’ families, and support of law enforcement, which would make our communities stronger and safer.

The right to life is not exclusive. It should not be determined based on where a person lives, a person’s skin color, or having money in the bank. Human dignity is something God gives each of us, whether we are deserving or not. With alternatives to the death penalty, we can keep our communities safe, support victims’ families, and save dollars that can be used for other needs in our state without taking a life. As a pro-life Christian, I am committed to a culture of life in our nation, and this includes the end of the death penalty.


Emily N. Haas, TADP Intern

# 157: Another Death Row Inmate Exonerated

On January 19, 2017, Isaiah McCoy, a former Delaware death row inmate, was exonerated when a judge acquitted him at a retrial. Mr. McCoy became the 157th person exonerated from death row in the U.S. in the modern era of the death penalty and the first in 2017.

Mr. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death in 2012, but the Delaware Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2015 as a result of prosecutorial misconduct and ordered a new trial. The Court suspended Deputy Attorney General R. David Favata from practice because of his misconduct at Mr. McCoy’s trial. Favata not only belittled Mr. McCoy for representing himself, but he also made intimidating comments to Mr. McCoy during a break in proceedings. Then, Favata lied to the judge about making the comments.

Because Mr. McCoy waived his right to a jury for his retrial, Kent County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Young made the decision to acquit based on the lack of physical evidence and that the two alleged accomplices had given contradictory testimony, including one accomplice who received a reduced sentence for his testimony against Mr. McCoy.

Upon his release, Mr. McCoy said, “I just want to say to all those out there going through the same thing I’m going through ‘keep faith, keep fighting. Two years ago, I was on death row. At 25, I was given a death sentence – and I am today alive and well and kicking and a free man.”

On February 1, 2017, Rhodes College and TADP will present a panel called A Broken System: Perspectives on the Death Penalty in Tennessee, featuring speakers including Sabrina Butler Porter. Mrs. Porter is one of only two women in the U.S. to be exonerated from death row.

In 1990, Sabrina Butler Porter, a 17 year-old mother from Mississippi, was convicted of murdering her nine-month-old son, Walter. She was later exonerated of all wrongdoing and is one of only two women in the United States exonerated from death row.

On April 12, 1989, Mrs. Porter rushed Walter, who had already been diagnosed with a heart murmur, to the hospital after he suddenly stopped breathing. Doctors attempted to resuscitate the baby, but failed. The day after her son’s death, Mrs. Porter was arrested for child abuse because of the bruises left by her resuscitation attempts. She was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Her conviction was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1992 (Butler v. State, 608 So.2d 314 (Miss. 1992)). The court said that the prosecution had failed to prove that the incident was anything more than an accident. At re-trial, she was acquitted on Dec. 17, 1995 after a very brief jury deliberation. It is now believed that the baby may have died either of cystic kidney disease or from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Mrs. Porter was spent more than five years in prison and 33 months on death row.

Sabrina Butler Porter now joins other exonerees in the Tennessee area, including Ray Krone, Paul House, Michael McCormick, Gussie Vann and Perry Cobb. Ndume Olatushani was released from death row in Tennessee in 2012 after spending 28 years in prison and 20 of those on death row. He took an Alford plea, allowing him to maintain his innocence while taking a plea for an immediate release.

The list of those sentenced to death for crimes that they did not commit continues to grow, and it is imperative that Tennesseans hear their stories. I hope you can join us in Memphis on Feb. 1 to hear Mrs. Porter’s story and to become educated on just how broken Tennessee’s death penalty system is.

Picture from