County Based Work

In Tennessee, Shelby County (Memphis) is responsible for 50% 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, from 2018 through 2020, TADP partnered with Just City, a Memphis organization which pursues a smaller, fairer, and more humane criminal justice system, to support the work of Community Organizer Joia Thornton 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 allowed Just City and TADP work to achieve their common goals of reducing the size, scope, and disparate treatment of the criminal justice system.

As part of her work, Joia initiated a Faith and Justice Experience in Memphis, bringing faith and community leaders together to break bread and tell stories about experiences with the criminal justice system. Participants 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 the 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. Joia also made these important connections through her presentations around the city and in her compelling article written for MLK50 and published August 26, 2020, entitled, “Pervis Payne and the color of capital punishment in the South.”

Joia Thornton led this innovative collaboration in Shelby County until January 2021 when she took a position with Southern Center for Human Rights in partnership with the 8th Amendment Project for movement building in the role of National Policy Strategist in Capital Litigation & Smart Justice.

TADP will soon be seeking another organizer to continue this work in Shelby County.