County Based Work

In Tennessee, Shelby County (Memphis) is responsible for 46% of the state’s death row while Davidson County (Nashville) is responsible for only 10%.

Because Shelby County so disproportionately impacts Tennessee’s whole death penalty system, TADP has partnered with Just City, a Memphis organization which pursues a smaller, fairer, and more humane criminal justice system, to support the work of a community organizer in Memphis to create awareness about local prosecutorial policies and their impact on the criminal justice system and to make the case for why ending the death penalty is essential to broader criminal justice reform. This collaborative work helps Just City and TADP achieve their common goals of reducing the size, scope, and disparate treatment of the criminal justice system.

Joia Thornton is currently leading this innovative collaboration in Shelby County. Joia has a Bachelor of Arts & Sciences degree in English & French from Louisiana State University and a Master of Public Administration & Policy degree from the University of Memphis.  She is a native of Memphis, with strong New Orleans roots, and spent most of her life between two uniquely diverse cities. Joia leads Just City’s Court Watch project, supports participatory defense efforts in youth justice, and educates Memphians about the inherent problems with Tennessee’s death penalty system.

In 2019, Joia initiated a Faith and Justice Experience in Memphis which brought 45 faith and community leaders together to break bread and tell stories about experiences with the criminal justice system. Participants then traveled the city by bus to visit People’s Grocery where three grocers were lynched (propelling the work of abolitionist Ida B. Wells), the lynching site of Lee Walker, Juvenile Court, the city jail, and concluded with Sabrina Butler Smith, an exonerated death row inmate, sharing the story of how she was sentenced to death for a crime that she didn’t commit.

This event provided the context and information to make these critical connections between Shelby County’s history, the current criminal justice system, and why criminal justice reform, including repeal of the death penalty, is so necessary. The event also provided concrete actions for participants to take to engage in the work for change moving forward.