Death Penalty Study Committee Meets

Yesterday the Fairness subcommittee of the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty met for over three hours as they discussed the problems with defense representation in capital cases in Tennessee. The American Bar Association Report on Fairness and Accuracy of Tennessee’s Death Penalty System released in 2007 states that “Tennessee’s statutory qualification requirements for capital defense attorneys fall far short of the requirements of the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases and are insufficient to ensure qualified counsel for every death-sentenced inmate.”

Given this reality, the Fairness Committee is seeking to find a way to ensure that defendants are given adequate representation when faced with a capital charge, particularly if they are indigent. To that end, the Committee heard testimony concerning the creation of an independent authority in Tennessee to oversee capital defense representation from Ty Hunter. Hunter is the executive director of a similar authority in North Carolina called the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (NCIDS), created by the NC legislature in 2000.

When asked what North Carolina’s motivation was in creating such an authority, Hunter responded that the first motivation was the lack of effective management of the state’s resources for indigent defense. Previously in North Carolina, (and currently in Tennessee) the system was very fragmented making fiscal accountability difficult. The second motivation was a very real concern about the quality of representation that poor people were receiving in court. Both motivations are also big concerns in Tennessee’s current system.

Additionally, such an independent authority could provide Tennessee’s system with an organizational structure for easier accountability, ensure qualification standards for defense attorneys working on capital cases, monitor defense services, and provide training for attorneys. The advantage that Tennessee has over North Carolina is our state’s public defender system which would work in conjunction with this independent authority. This authority would allow public defenders more flexibility in dealing with capital cases and would help to relieve public defender caseloads while ensuring that indigent defendants were appointed competent counsel.

A sentiment which was repeated again and again yesterday in the subcommittee, made up of both prosecutors and defense attorneys, was that lawyers on both sides of any case want to try cases with other attorneys who are competent. It serves neither side to have an incompetent attorney involved because of the amount of time the trial ultimately will take as well as the numerous appeals that will certainly be forthcoming if a client does not receive good representation. Another important point is that with good defense representation, defendants are more likely to have confidence in their attorneys making them more likely to take pleas, sparing victims’ family members the pain of a trial while saving taxpayers lots of money.

The creation of an independent body to oversee capital case defense in Tennessee seems like an idea that anyone concerned about fairness would welcome. Other states, such as North Carolina, have experienced great results with such an authority. I hope as this subcommittee becomes clearer about what might be best for Tennessee, that lawmakers will pass legislation that moves Tennessee in the right direction. Though we at TCASK wish to see a system where no one would ever face a death sentence, until we arrive at abolition, we must support any steps which make the system more fair.

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