Death Row Lotto

Once again, Sarah Kelley of the Nashville Scene has authored another superb/eye-opening/troubling article on Tennessee’s death penalty. The article, titled “Death Row Lotto” focuses on the randomness at which this failed public policy is applied, read it HERE. Issues of proportionality, prosecutor discretion, inadequate defense, and many more are all explored. Highlights of the article include:

On proportionality:

“Even though a case might technically meet the test for the death penalty, it might not be appropriate. That’s what proportionality review is all about,” says David Raybin, a former prosecutor, who in 1972 took on the task of rewriting the state’s capital punishment laws. “It’s an extra safeguard so you don’t have an aberrant or freakish imposition of the death penalty. That’s what it’s designed to do. How it’s being applied in practice is a different story.”

On prosecutor discretion:

“To me, the prosecutor is the most powerful person in the state in the sense that there’s no review of his decision to seek the death penalty,” says Bill Reddick, director of the Tennessee Justice Project. For the past two decades, the longtime criminal defense lawyer has handled death penalty cases almost exclusively . And from his experience, Reddick says it’s clear that although the law requires capital punishment to be reserved for the worst offenders, instead it’s often handed out randomly in Tennessee. “There’s a big difference in the way prosecutors exercise discretion in the decision to seek death…. The type of justice being applied varies in different parts of the state.”

On inadequate defense:

“Due to an unqualified defense lawyer at trial, it would be several years before details emerged about Harbison’s horrific childhood, during which his mother beat him with belts and extension cords, his sister shot at him, his father attacked him with a power drill, and his older brother set him on fire. Also unknown to the jury was the fact that an expert had previously determined Harbison was borderline mentally retarded and psychologically impaired as a result of a lifetime of abuse, making him an easy target for a streetwise criminal like David Schreane to manipulate. But perhaps the most shocking post-trial revelation was that police failed to turn over crucial documents naming a third suspect who never was charged in connection with the murder, and instead was extradited to Florida on unrelated charges. Despite repeated requests for all files related to the investigation, this key evidence was withheld from Harbison’s defense until 14 years after he was sentenced to die.”

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