Gary Cone, Gaile Owens, EJ Harbison

Gary Cone

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Cone v. Bell. Gary Cone, the defendant, is currently on Tennessee’s death row for the 1980 murder of an elderly Memphis couple. There is no doubt of Cone’s guilt. However, Cone’s defense has uncovered serious allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, including the withholding of critical evidence for Cone’s defense.

“You’re saying that the lawyer, the trained lawyer for the government, who knew this information and knew the defense — just what? Just overlooked it by accident? Just what?” Breyer demanded.

The evidence in question was whether or not Cone was a drug user. Cone’s initial defense and mitigation in the sentencing phase was predicated on his drug abuse. The prosecution argued that he was not a drug user despite holding evidence, including statements from law enforcement and the FBI that validated his drug abuse. “Cone’s attorney, Thomas C. Goldstein, told the justices that the evidence was key to his client’s insanity defense or could at least be presented as a mitigating circumstance that would keep him from being put to death.”

Personally, I am not at all surprised by the arguments that made justices “exasperated.” Time and time again we learn of significant prosecutorial misconduct in the course of seeking death sentences. Cone’s case came out of Shelby County which accounts for a disproportional 40% of our death row. Even more troubling to me is that appeals courts, which serve as an “audit” of previous rulings, did not weed this out. “When Cone tried to present the evidence in a new round of appeals, Tennessee courts mistakenly said it had been considered and rejected.”

Read more coverage of this case from the Washington Post and NPR.

Gaile Owens

“The first woman ever to be sentenced to death in Tennessee is a step closer to execution Tuesday after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied her habeas petition in a 2-1 decision. Nashville-based Judge Gil Merritt filed the dissenting opinion.”

“Owens argued for relief before the Sixth Circuit on grounds that she received ineffective assistance of counsel when trial counsel failed to adequately investigate her background and failed to overcome the state’s hearsay objection to one of her penalty-phase witnesses; the state violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to turn over letters between her deceased husband and his paramour; and the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering, as mitigating evidence, testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in return for receiving a life sentence.”

The Nashville Scene blog, Pith in the Wind, also laid out the three key issues. “She received jaw-droppingly ineffective assistance of counsel, the state withheld crucial exculpatory evidence, and the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.”

“Stacy Rector, executive director of the anti-death penalty Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killings (TCASK), told The City Paper in response to the ruling that she was not happy with the decision.

“I am very disappointed by the 6th Circuit court’s decision in the case of Gaile Owens,” Rector said adding “the death penalty in this case is grossly disproportionate considering that Ms. Owens was willing to plead guilty and spend the rest of her life in prison for this crime; but, because her co-defendant wouldn’t plead, the case went to trial. Her attorneys spent only two hours of pretrial investigation and no hours — literally zero hours — preparing for her sentencing hearing.”

“Rector also pointed to a Monday recommendation from the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty that the Tennessee General Assembly create an independent commission to oversee capital defense in Tennessee based on the “woefully inadequate defense many capital defendants receive at trial.”

“The case of Gaile Owens is but one more example of this problem,” Rector said.”

Read the rest of this City Paper article by CLICKING HERE. Read the rest of the Nashville Scene blog by CLICKING HERE.

EJ Harbison

Governors nationwide that are for and against the death penalty are backing Tennessee death row inmate, EJ Harbison. Harbison’s case is currently before the US Supreme Court. “Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is a Democrat who supports the death penalty. Former Gov. Richard Celeste is a Democrat who opposed it. Both have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of a death row inmate from Tennessee seeking a federally funded lawyer to help with his clemency request.

“The issue before the court is relatively narrow: Does an existing federal law that authorizes funding for death row inmates’ lawyers also cover state clemency hearings?”

“The Tennessee public defender’s office said it didn’t have the resources to represent Harbison in a clemency request. So he asked for a federally appointed lawyer. Federal and district appeals court judges said the law doesn’t authorize such funding.”

Read the rest of this article by CLICKING HERE.

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