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June, 2023

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.