Archive for

2023



Celebrating the Life of TADP Board Member and Founder of Room in the Inn Charles Strobel

Our dear friend and longtime TADP board member, Charlie Strobel, died on Sunday morning. He was 80 years old.

I am still processing and will be for some time. Charlie has been my dear friend for over twenty years and has served on the TADP board since I became director 17 years ago. I honestly can’t imagine not having him around.

Charlie desperately wanted to end the death penalty and spent much of his time supporting TADP in that mission. He and his family were incredible witnesses to the “miracle of forgiveness,” as he called it, when his mother was murdered in Nashville, and they fought against the death penalty for the man who murdered her. He shared his story all over the state and in the short film about TADP’s work called To Honor Life.

If you have never watched this film, I encourage you to do so. The statistics are dated since the film is several years old now, but the stories are timeless and speak to the need to finally end the death penalty.

Over the years, Charlie was also active with Murder Victims Families for Human Rights and served on a legislative death penalty study committee in Tennessee. He did all of this in addition to his tireless work on behalf of the unhoused, as founder of Room in the Inn.

I was able to spend some good time with him over these past months and was actually with him on Friday for several hours. He was tired but still had that twinkle in his eye! All of Nashville is grieving, and well beyond Nashville, as Charlie was a light and always will be. He stood with those among us who are the most vulnerable…those who are poor, sick, and in prison. And he was a champion for the unhoused. I won’t call him a saint because that made him roll his eyes, but he was that to me and to so many of us.

We love you, Charlie, and we are all better people because we knew you and loved you.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.

When we end the death penalty in Tennessee, you will be one of the reasons why.

Rest in peace, sweet friend,

Stacy

Photo by Jeff Moles

Doomed to Repeat: The Legacy of Race in Tennessee’s Contemporary Death Penalty

During a committee meeting in the 2023 legislative session, a Tennessee Representative offered this amendment to a bill that would have allowed executions by firing squad: I was just wondering, could I put an amendment on that that would include hanging by a tree, also?”

A few weeks later, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel two Black legislators for demanding from the well that thousands of Tennesseans gathered at the Capitol be heard on gun violence in the wake of The Covenant School shooting.

Given this climate, the timing of a Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) report focusing on the legacy of race in Tennessee’s death penalty could not be better. The report entitled, Doomed to Repeat: The Legacy of Race in Tennessee’s Contemporary Death Penalty, explores the current capital punishment system in Tennessee through a historical lens, tracing the origins of the use of the death penalty to lynchings and other forms of racial violence directed at Black Tennesseans.

TADP is lifting up this report through op-eds, podcasts, statewide events, and social media, making the case that racism is so intrinsic to Tennessee’s capital punishment system that the only remedy is repeal of the death penalty.

Some key findings of the report include:

  • Historically, there were thirteen offenses for which Black people in Tennessee could receive the death penalty, compared to just two offenses for white citizens.

  • Historically, local officials were often complicit in lynchings and other forms of racial violence against Blacks in Tennessee.

  • Almost 40% of Tennessee homicide victims are white, but 74% of death sentences imposed in Tennessee since 1972 have involved white victims.

  • Shelby County is a death sentencing outlier in the state and nationally. Despite comprising just 13% of the state’s total population, Shelby is responsible for one-third of all death sentences in Tennessee and half of the current death row. Further, 60% of death sentences for Black defendants in the state have originated in Shelby County. Shelby County is also an outlier nationally. Compared to counties of a similar size (population between 750,000–1,000,000), Shelby County ranks third in the number of death sentences imposed.

  • The most likely outcome of a death sentence in Tennessee is reversal, commutation, or exoneration. Two of every three death sentences in the state from 1972 to 2021 have resulted in a reversal, commutation, or exoneration. The reversal rate in Shelby County, the state’s primary outlier county, is nearly 62%. These statistics point to the unreliability of the death penalty at both the state and county level in Tennessee.

  • In recent years, the state legislature has passed legislation that removes power from locally elected county prosecutors to handle various aspects of death penalty cases, allowing the unelected attorney general to take control of local issues.

  • Many historical issues related to race, including segregation and Black voter disenfranchisement, are still prevalent in Tennessee today. Remnants of Jim Crow and segregation persist in Tennessee. Memphis, for example, is highly segregated. A 2021 study found 17 of the city’s neighborhoods were at least 98% Black, and five were at least 90% white. Additionally, Tennessee has the highest proportion of disenfranchised Black residents in the United States, with more than 1 in 5 Black people unable to vote.

  • Homicides involving white victims in Tennessee are more likely to be solved than homicides involving Black victims. A review of unsolved Tennessee homicides from 2013–2021 found that 29% of homicides of Black victims in the state went unsolved, compared to 11% of homicides of white victims. The racial discrepancies in homicide clearing rates suggest that cases involving white victims are more likely to be prosecuted.

  • People on death row face legal barriers to seeking relief for jury discrimination in Tennessee because of the “reluctance by appellate judges to find racial bias when claims are presented.” A study on jury discrimination in the south conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) suggested that, even when prosecutors used veiled race-based reasons to strike potential Black jurors, Tennessee’s appellate courts rarely reversed decisions. At the time of EJI’s study—and continuing for an additional six years—Tennessee was the only state studied whose appellate courts had never granted relief in a criminal case because of jury discrimination. The report attributed this anomaly to the failure of trial counsel to properly raise objections at trial and the “reluctance by appellate judges to find racial bias when claims are presented.”

  • The Department of Justice’s investigation into Shelby County’s juvenile justice system found that “the data show that in certain phases of the County’s juvenile justice system, race is—in and of itself—a significant contributing factor, even after factoring in legal variables.”

Listen to a podcast about the report.

TAKE ACTION: Sign the petition asking Governor Lee not to resume executions in Tennessee.

A Message from TADP’s Executive Director on The Covenant School Shooting and the Violence Epidemic

On a beautiful spring day one week ago, six people, including three children, were shot and killed at The Covenant School in Nashville. The shooter was also killed. Seven dead in 15 minutes.

As this nightmare was unfolding, I was serving on a panel at MTSU, joined by Sabrina-Butler Smith and Cynthia Vaughn. We had been invited to speak to two classes for Women’s History Month.

Sabrina, a woman of color, is one of only two women exonerated from death row in the country. As a teenager in Mississippi, she was convicted of killing her infant son and sentenced to die. Her wrongful conviction was based on false and misleading forensic evidence as well as prosecutorial misconduct. Sabrina endured six and a half years in prison, two years and nine months on death row, for a crime that never occurred. Her son, Walter, died of natural causes.

Cynthia Vaughn was a child when her mother, Connie, was murdered in Memphis. Her stepfather, Don Johnson, was convicted for her mother’s murder and sentenced to death. Cynthia’s life was turned upside down, and for most of her life, she wanted her stepfather to die.

A few years before his execution, she realized the anger that her unaddressed trauma had created was destroying her and hurting others. After visiting her stepfather on death row, she became convinced that there was nothing about his death that would heal her. She worked to stop his execution and now speaks about the additional trauma she experienced trapped in the legal system for thirty years while receiving little to no support from the state to assist with her healing.

Cynthia, Sabrina, and I finished our first presentation on Monday morning and went to grab an early lunch. After we sat down to eat, we got word of the shooting. I made some calls to get more information. The news was bad. We finished our meal as best we could and gathered ourselves for a second presentation to 50 students and a few faculty members.

What was there to say? We all sat silently for a minute or two, and then I spoke. “It has happened again.”

Sitting with Sabrina and Cynthia in a classroom full of young people staring back at us, I wanted to hit the rewind button and start the day over. I wanted to scream, vomit, and beat my fists against the wall. I wanted to run away.

I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I took a deep, prayerful breath, and said, “Violence is never a solution to address our pain. It is, instead, a symptom of it. We cannot punish our way out of situations like this one.”

We cannot punish our way out of situations like this one.

We know that a variety of factors have led us to this deadly point. And we know that we are not helpless, though it may feel that way. There are steps to take to improve the situation, if we can find the collective will to take them.

Because the shooter is dead, we will not have the debate about how to punish the one who has inflicted the devastation. Such debates always distract us from the real question anyway…how could we have stopped it from happening in the first place?

I am convinced that transforming our criminal legal system, anchored in retribution and punishment, to a system that is anchored in accountability and healing, is at least part of the solution. Survivors of violence have many unmet needs that have nothing to do with punishing someone else. And those who have harmed or who might do harm to others should be able to access comprehensive mental and behavioral health care (including trauma care) in Tennessee, at least as easily as they can access a gun.

As our state wrestles with this tragedy, TADP is committed to having the hard conversations about how to prevent such violence from happening at all and to seek true justice in our communities–providing safety, healing, and real accountability for anyone experiencing harm.

Thank you for your support in this work.

Love and peace,

Stacy

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