Death Penalty Study Committee Makes Recommendation

The Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty met on December 1 for several hours to begin voting on recommendations to the legislature. Though much was discussed, disappointingly, not much was recommended.

The only recommendation which made it out of the Committee on Monday was a recommendation to create a state policy asking that law enforcement agencies record custodial interrogations. Though a step in the right direction, the recommendation is not a “law” but a “policy” which means that if recording does not occur, the interrogations are still admissible in court. The provision in the recommendation which would have instructed the trial judge to inform the jury that a recorded interrogation is required by statute was struck by the representative of the DA’s conference without much discussion. This was disappointing.

The Committee also discussed recommending the exclusion of those deemed to be severely mentally ill at the time a crime is committed from a death sentence. This recommendation would be exactly like the current law excluding those with mental retardation from death. Those with severe mental illness found guilty of a crime could still receive life without parole but not death.

A few Committee members voiced concerns about identifying those with severe mental illness and how difficult that process could be. Unfortunately, Sita Diehl, a Committee member and representative for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was not even able to complete her presentation (which she had already given the the Promptness subcommittee) before the Committee left the topic. No vote was taken on the recommendation.

My hope is that this recommendation could be reconsidered at the next meeting and a vote taken. Though I understand the concerns with determining severe mental illness, there are clear parameters to guide that process, and we have found a way to do so for those with mental retardation.

Though I applaud the Committee for its work, I am deeply concerned about all the issues which have not been discussed and the lack of organization to this whole process. The American Bar Association’s Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report released in May 2007 outlines 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate death penalty system of which Tennessee fully complies with 7.

The process the ABA team took in producing this report took three years. This Study Committee has had 14 months with meetings held sporadically during that time frame. If only a few recommendations are made, this Committee will not have fulfilled its charge to examine all aspects of Tennessee’s death penalty thoroughly and completely, leaving the state vulnerable to and unfair system which has the potential of executing the innocent.

Without a full report on the findings of this Committee, Tennesseans will continue to be in the dark about the scope of the system’s problems. I hope that we can demonstrate to this Committee in what may be their final meeting next week, Tennesseans deserve to know how broken this system really is.

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