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Reflection and Gratitude

The last months have been tough ones for us in Tennessee with the executions of Billy Ray Irick, Edmund Zagorski, and most recently, David Miller. After nine years with no executions in our state and despite our best efforts to stop them, Tennessee executed three men in 2018 who had each been on death row for over thirty years.

As senseless and tragic as these executions are, they do nothing to change the reality that our death penalty system in Tennessee is morally bankrupt and broken beyond repair. In fact, they only amplify that reality. Our job now, as it has been, is to educate our fellow Tennesseans about that brokenness. We do that by listening to their concerns, taking those concerns seriously, giving them the information that they need to make informed choices, and providing them with the tools to take action.

And though our hearts too have been broken this year, both for those executed and for the surviving families of the murder victims, there is still good news even as we wrestle with the bad. The good news is that the death penalty continues its steady decline across the country and yes, even here in Tennessee.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) recently released its year-end report for 2018, highlighting that:

  • across the country, death sentences and executions remained near generational lows.
  • for the fourth year in a row, there were fewer than 30 executions and 50 death sentences.
  • for the 18th consecutive year, the population of death row declined.
  • Washington State abolished its death penalty, making it the 20th state to do so.

DPIC’s Executive Director Rob Dunham stated, “The clear long-term trend in the United States is away from the death penalty. That is evidenced by the continuing near-record low number of new death sentences and low number nationwide of executions.”

The report also notes that, here in Tennessee, juries handed down only one new death sentence this year. This statistic is in keeping with the death sentencing trends in our state over the past several years.

With more Tennesseans joining us in this work for repeal and with your commitment over the long haul, TADP can confidently say, even with executions resuming, that we are making progress.

Still, this work doesn’t happen overnight. You already know that. Others may be executed before we get there. But that doesn’t stop us. Together, we will end the death penalty in Tennessee because we don’t go it alone—never have, never will.

From the bottom of our hearts, we at TADP thank you for your work and witness in 2018. We look forward to what we can accomplish together in 2019 to move Tennessee away from the death penalty.

Read more about the DPIC Report.

Photo by Calvin Kimbrough at TADP’s vigil at West End UMC on November 1, 2018.

Washington State Repeals the Death Penalty While Edmund Zagorski Gets a 10-Day Reprieve

Yesterday as Tennessee prepared to execute Edmund Zagorski, the state of Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty in this country!

Thankfully, back here in Tennessee, Governor Haslam gave Mr. Zagorski a 10-day reprieve just hours before he was to be executed. Haslam specifically referenced the electric chair suit in his reprieve, suggesting that a delay would give the state time to prepare to execute Mr. Zagorski using the electric chair.

The Governor stated, “I take seriously the responsibility imposed upon the Tennessee Department of Correction and me by law, and given the federal court’s decision to honor Zagorski’s last-minute decision to choose electrocution as the method of execution, this brief reprieve will give all involved the time necessary to carry out the sentence in an orderly and careful manner.”

But, no amount of “orderliness” changes the fact that this execution should not happen at all. Six jurors from Mr. Zagorski’s trial have asked the Governor to commute his sentence to life without parole, a sentence not available to them in 1984. Mr. Zagorski has worked to rehabilitate himself, is remorseful for his crime, and has had no disciplinary issues in 34 years of incarceration. Correctional staff have also asked Governor Haslam for a commutation, and the wife of one of the victims has stated that she is satisfied with life without parole. If Mr. Zagorksi had been convicted after life without parole became a sentencing option, he would likely not be facing execution today. How’s that for arbitrary?

And the arbitrary nature of the death penalty system, particularly racial bias, is a key reason why the Washington Supreme Court struck its death penalty law down yesterday.

“There is nothing unique about the role racism played in Washington’s death penalty,” said Jeff Robinson, the deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice at the ACLU.

“What is rare is the Supreme Court’s willingness to call out the truth that has always been there. … he said.

Tennessee’s death penalty scheme is as arbitrary and racially biased as Washington’s, if not more so.

In Tennessee, 16% of the total population is African American while 47% of death row is. In Tennessee, a person is at least 3.15 times more likely to get a death sentence if the victim is white. In a 2012 report, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) looked at jury selection procedures in eight Southern states, including Tennessee and found shocking evidence of racial discrimination in every one of those states, 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.

If Governor Haslam were truly concerned about being careful, he would stop these executions until our state could do a careful examination of Tennessee’s whole death penalty system. For those who want to maintain the system as it is, the concern seems to be that if they examine it, they already know what they will find–a broken policy that is infused with arbitrariness and racial bias, that is exorbitantly expensive, too often inaccurate, and damaging to victims’ families who are trapped in it for decades.

We all know Tennessee’s death penalty is broken. We just need our leaders to have the political courage to admit it and then do something about it.

Read more about Washington here.


Reflection and Thank You

Last week ended with the execution of Billy Ray Irick, a man with severe mental illness since childhood, a man whose case did not get a full and fair review by the courts. If it had, he wouldn’t be dead. Still the Governor insisted that he was treated fairly, despite the overwhelming evidence that he wasn’t. So now I find myself trying to come to terms with the reality that Tennessee’s nine-year hiatus from executing its citizens is over and that we are entering a new phase of our work.
Only five days after Billy Ray Irick was executed, Nebraska executed its first person since 1997. Only three year ago, Nebraska state lawmakers voted to repeal the death penalty. Governor Pete Ricketts then “helped finance a ballot drive to reinstate capital punishment after lawmakers overrode his veto,” as The Associated Press reported. He contributed $300,000 of his own money to a petition drive organized by several of his associates to get the issue on the November 2016 general election ballot. He was successful, and here we are.
Still, even as I acknowledge my utter disappointment and frustration with what has transpired over the last week, I can truthfully say that I remain hopeful… a bit bruised, but hopeful.
I shared the source of that hope with those who gathered at the vigil at Fisk Memorial Chapel on Thursday:
We gather, not as naïve people as we are sometimes portrayed to be…far from it. We know all too well the realities of violence. Some of us in this room have lost loved ones to murder and know the gaping wounds that such violence leaves in its wake. We gather because our hope is not grounded in some rose colored optimism that pretends that violence and death are not powerful or real. We know better than that. We gather because our hope is born from a source far greater than ourselves. This hope elicits from us a shared conviction that we are called to find real solutions to violence—identifying and meeting the needs of those who are abused, victimized, and traumatized, lifting up those who are impoverished and disenfranchised—with the understanding that if we do these things, our state will be far healthier and safer than if the best solution we can devise is to execute a man with severe mental illness 30 years after the crime.
I went on to say that, for me, as a person of faith, I believe that the Holy Spirit is on the move, even now. You may call Her something else–the spirit of justice or the higher good. But whatever you call Her, she breaks into this world, into the suffering, into the violence, into the injustice, and changes things. And though the change may be slow, it is sure.
And if you need evidence of the change, just step back and take a look at where we are. Executions and death sentencing are still at historic lows. Public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in 40 years. People from both sides of the aisle are speaking out about their concerns, with conservative voices publicly calling on Governor Haslam to stop Irick’s execution. Last week, even as emotions were running high, I had conversations with long-time death penalty supporters who told me that their minds have changed, that given the alternative sentences available to us in Tennessee, they just don’t see the need for the death penalty anymore.
And then there is you. Your commitment to repeal over the long haul is another reason we can say, even with the horrible events of this past week, that we are making progress. Billy Ray Irick’s execution does not change the reality that our death penalty system in Tennessee is morally bankrupt and broken beyond repair, it only amplifies that reality. Our job now, as it has been, is to assist our fellow Tennesseans in understanding that brokenness. We do that by listening to their concerns, taking those concerns seriously, giving them information that they need to make informed choices, and providing them with the tools to take action.
This work doesn’t happen overnight. You know that too. Others may be executed before we get there. But that doesn’t stop us from doing the work that is before us. Together, we will end the death penalty in Tennessee because we don’t go it alone. Never have, never will.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for every phone call, email, letter to the editor, Facebook post, tweet, and signature. Thank you for showing up and standing out in the heat. Thank you for your songs and silence, your thoughts and prayers. Thank you.

Tennessee’s Death Penalty Roller Coaster Makes Us All Sick

I am not a fan of roller coasters. As a kid, I tried to be. But after a few instances of losing my lunch, I decided they just weren’t my thing. And though I get that some folks find the amusement park versions to be thrilling, real life roller coasters tend to make us all a bit nauseous. The death penalty system is one of those real life roller coasters that the state of Tennessee is trying to ride again. So far, it is has been rough going. I can’t say that I am surprised.

In January of this year, Tennessee set an August 9th execution date for Billy Ray Irick after nearly ten years with no executions in the state. Mr. Irick committed a heinous crime, the rape and murder of a a little girl, Paula Dyer.  Mr. Irick is also a man who has had significant mental health issues since childhood, issues that were present at the time of the crime and about which his jury was never given accurate information. He has been on Tennessee’s death row for over 30 years.

Roughly a month after the state set Mr. Irick’s execution date, the Tennessee Attorney General (AG) then requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court set eight more execution dates before June 1st. What? Tennessee has executed only six people since 1960, and the AG wants eight executions in three months. Such a move is unprecedented in the modern era of the death penalty in our state.

Arkansas tried it though. The state attempted to execute eight men in 10 days last spring with swift condemnation coming from many corners. When all was said and done, Arkansas executed four of those men, doing so against the express wishes of the drug manufacturer whose product was used in the executions and while disregarding the very real concerns of the state’s corrections community about the detrimental mental health impact these executions could have on those ask to carry them out.

Then, in another twist, just a few days ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied the request of Tennessee’s AG to set these eight dates before June 1. But the Court did set two more execution dates, an Oct. 11 date for Edmond Zagorski and a Dec. 6 date for David Miller.  Anyone else feeling queasy?

All of these nine men have been in prison for decades, serving life sentences while waiting for death sentences to be carried out. The victims’ families have been trapped in capital litigation for the same amount of time, and though a few dates are now set, there is no guarantee that these executions will happen. And, if they do, will they give families the experience of justice that they were promised so long ago?

Taxpayers are still on the hook for propping up this colossal waste of tax dollars while those with opioid addiction and mental health issues in Tennessee may not be able to access treatment because our state doesn’t have enough resources to treat all who need it. And though none of us wants to believe that any of the 60 people sitting on Tennessee’s death row right now are actually innocent, the research says that some of them are.

Paul House was wrongfully convicted, spending nearly 23 years on Tennessee’s death row before his release. The petition that Paul has created asks Governor Haslam not to resume executions because what happened to him can and does happen to others. In fact, three other men also spent decades on Tennessee’s death row before their wrongful convictions were addressed. They were finally released after years of legal wrangling and despite the state’s best efforts to keep them there.

This real life roller coaster that is the death penalty is fraught with problems and always will be. It takes us on a terrifying ride that does nothing to make our communities safer and wastes resources that could be used to prevent violent crime. It is not fairly applied and too often only exposes victims’ families to more trauma as they wait for a sentence that may never be carried out.

It’s time. Let’s shut this thing down. The setting of these execution dates in Tennessee is increasingly out of step with the national trends away from the death penalty. Death sentencing and executions are at historic lows, and public support for the death penalty has dipped to levels not seen in 40 years. And, we have alternatives, like a life sentence (51 years before parole eligibility) and life without the possibility of parole, that are cheaper and don’t risk executing innocent people. Let’s promote a policy that supports victims’ families and offers them tools for healing. Let’s get smarter in using our resources to address the root causes of the violence in our communities so that we can prevent these horrible crimes from happening in the first place. Stop this ride that is making us all sick. End the death penalty in Tennessee.



Tennessee Must Not Resume Executions

Nearly 10 years have passed with no executions in Tennessee. With the ongoing controversy and legal challenges surrounding lethal injection, executions have been sporadically on-again, off-again for the last decade.  And even with an execution date now set, there is reason to believe that Billy Ray Irick, the man who is set to die on August 9, 2018, may not be mentally competent for the execution to occur. His case has wound through the courts for over 30 years, and still no legal finality.

The crime for which Mr. Irick was sentenced to death was heinous. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paul Dyer of Knoxville, for whom he was babysitting. Her family has obviously suffered unspeakable pain, and three decades of court dates and media stories forcing them to relive the trauma of their daughter’s death over and over again, have no doubt taken a toll. Even now, with this execution date on the calendar, nothing is sure.

Mr. Irick’s court appointed trial attorneys did little to investigate his long history of abuse and mental health issues and did not interview any of Paula’s step-family, with whom Mr. Irick was living just weeks before the murder. In 1999, when new attorneys appealed the case in federal court, an investigator finally spoke with Paula’s family who described Mr Irick as a man clearly in the throes of psychosis.

According to a recent article in the Nashville Scene, “In a brief filed in 2010, Irick’s attorneys argued that he ‘was experiencing a psychotic episode with hallucinations and/or delusions and that he has no memory of the offenses themselves or his role in them.’ Further, they contended that Irick did not, and could not, ‘have a rational understanding of his pending execution because he has no memory of the offenses, does not believe that he committed them, and has the emotional and social functioning of a child.’”  So, it stands to reason that Mr. Irick’s competency has been and will continue to be an issue in this case.

Beyond Mr. Irick, there are still 60 people awaiting execution on Tennessee’s death row, some who have been there as long as he has. Tennessee has executed six people since 1960 and occasionally sentences someone to death, though death sentencing in Tennessee is becoming more rare, as it is nationwide, with new death sentences in this country recently reaching a 40-year low.

Too often who ends up getting the death penalty in Tennessee has more to do with the defense you can afford, the color of your skin, the county in which you live, or your mental health status, than with the crime itself. Obviously such arbitrary factors should not determine whether you live or die in Tennessee, but too often, they do.

Add to these issues the real risk of executing an innocent person. Tennessee has executed six people since 1960 and released four others because we got it wrong…and those cases took decades to figure out. How many other innocent people are on death row right now? The system we have simply isn’t capable of ensuring that we get it right 100% of the time.

Given this reality, Tennessee death row exoneree Paul House has authored a petition asking that Governor Haslam not allow executions to resume in Tennessee, for Billy Ray Irick or for anyone else. Mr. House spent 22 years on death row before DNA evidence finally led to his release, and he knows better than anyone how real the risk of executing an innocent person is. With alternative sentencing like life and life without parole already available in Tennessee, pursuing executions is just not worth the risk.

Please sign and share this petition widely to demonstrate to Governor Haslam that as the nation moves away from executions, Tennessee should not move toward them. The risk is simply to great.

(Photo of Joyce and Paul House by Edward Tse)