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,