Death Penalty Information Center’s Special Report: The Innocence Epidemic

On February 18, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) added 11 people to its innocence list, bringing to the number of wrongfully convicted individuals sentenced to death in the U.S. since 1973 to 185.  
The new data demonstrate that for every eight people who have been put to death in the U.S. since executions resumed in the 1970s, one person who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death has been exonerated.
DPIC researched every death sentence in the U.S. since 1973 (more than 9,600 death sentences nationwide) and discovered 11 cases of exonerations that were not previously included on the innocence list. 
“Everybody’s worst fear about capital punishment is that innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and executed,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director.
“But the more we learn about what actually happens in these cases, the worse the problem gets. As long as the legal system involves humans, it is guaranteed to make mistakes. But most innocent people who are wrongfully convicted and sent to death row don’t get there by mistake. The data from these 185 exonerations shows that far more frequently, and particularly with people of color, innocent death row prisoners were convicted because of a combination of police or prosecutorial misconduct and perjury or other false testimony.” The data, Dunham said, “raises serious questions as to whether we can trust the government to fairly, honestly, and reliably carry out the death penalty.” 
According to DPIC, of the 185 exonerations that have occurred since 1973, 69.1 percent (128) have included official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. Official misconduct was much more likely in cases involving defendants of color, cases in which exonerations took two decades or more, and cases in which DNA evidence was a significant factor in proving innocence–all of which are also factors in the case of Pervis Payne.
In addition to the 185 individuals who have been exonerated, there are other individuals whose names may finally be added to the list as the fight to exonerate them continues, including two cases from Shelby County.
Pervis Payne, a Black man with intellectual disability, has maintained his innocence for over 30 years. He was convicted in Shelby County, which has a long history of lynchings and racial terror, after the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence and argued, without evidence, that Mr. Payne was a drug abusing superpredator looking to rape a white woman.
April Alley, the daughter of Sedley Alley, a man executed in 2006 after a court denied DNA testing based on a case that has since been overturned, is currently petitioning for posthumous DNA testing. Mr. Alley said that he was coerced into falsely confessing to a murder, which is supported by details in his statement that do not match the forensic evidence. An expert in false confessions has concluded that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false.
“The Death Penalty Information Center’s findings are alarming, but not surprising,” Christina Swarns, Executive Director of the Innocence Project, said. “Racism pervades every stage of the criminal legal system and sends far too many innocent people of color to prison and to the execution chamber. The good news is that more Americans are now taking this issue seriously.”
Kirk Bloodsworth, Executive Director of Witness to Innocence and the first death-row survivor to be exonerated by DNA, said the addition of 11 new people to DPIC’s innocence list makes him certain that “innocent people are still on death row today.” He added, “with such a large number of mistakes uncovered, there’s no need to wonder anymore, we can also be sure that innocent people have been executed.” 
Read the report at
Read Tennessean article at
Pictured Tennessee death row exoneree Paul House and his mother, Joyce House.

Where We Have Been and Where We are Going

“The death penalty has been plagued by inequity and injustice throughout its history, but those problems came into stark focus this year as the pandemic and the protests against police violence heightened the same disparities throughout our national institutions. As the United States engaged in a nationwide conversation about systemic racism, access to resources, and failures of federal leadership, capital punishment mirrored those faults through its racially biased application, inadequate legal protects, and outlier practices of the federal government.” The Death Penalty in 2020: Year End Report from Death Penalty Information Center

As we entered 2020, Tennessee had five executions scheduled. 

As we end 2020, the State has carried out only one. Nicholas Sutton, was executed in February, though he had become a model of redemption and reform. Nick even saved the lives of three correctional staff during his incarceration, while a number of correctional officers as well as surviving families of the murder victims supported clemency. We grieve that another life was lost to violence in Tennessee but are also relieved that the other executions did not go forward. 

With your gift to TADP today, we will continue to keep up the pressure to prevent executions in 2021 while educating even more Tennesseans about why this system is failing.

As COVID-19 took hold in the spring, the Tennessee Supreme Court postponed the scheduled June execution of Oscar Smith and the October execution of Byron Black, but the State was still planning to execute Harold Nichols in August. Because of your support, TADP continued to raise concerns about the risks that carrying out an execution during a pandemic would have to public health while also highlighting the inability of Mr. Nichols’ attorneys to do the necessary clemency work given the limitations placed on them by COVID restrictions and the denial of visits for Mr. Nichols with his spiritual advisor in the months leading up to his execution date. 

And, on July 17, the same week the federal government carried out its first execution in 17 years, Governor Lee announced that he would grant Harold Nichols a reprieve through the end of 2020!

This was the first time that Governor Lee has intervened to stop an execution, and he cited many of the same reasons that TADP raised in granting the reprieve; specifically indicating that he did not believe the process could be fair given the circumstances.

Then, on November 6th, Governor Lee issued another reprieve, this time for Pervis Payne until April 9, 2021. Governor Lee’s stated reason for the reprieve was the public health risk of carrying out an execution during the pandemic, but your overwhelming public support and outreach to the governor on behalf of clemency for Mr. Payne undoubtedly influenced his decision.

Thanks to you, TADP had the funding and the resources to organize and lead this public response. Now, we must keep pushing to see that justice is ultimately done in this case, not only to ensure that Tennessee does not carry out the unconstitutional execution of a person with intellectual disability, but also to stop the execution of a man with strong evidence of innocence. With your support, we will do just that.

The Death Penalty Information Center recently released its Year End Report highlighting the continued erosion of the death penalty across our country. 

The report highlights that in 2020, Colorado became the 22nd state to end the death penalty while Louisiana and Utah reached ten years with no executions. With those actions, 34 states have now abolished the death penalty or have not executed anyone in a decade or more. The Gallup poll found public support for the death penalty at a near half-century low, and opposition to the death penalty at its highest level since the 1960s. Voters elected new anti-death-penalty district attorneys in counties constituting 12% of the current U.S. death row population, and five men were exonerated from death row this year, including Curtis Flowers of Mississippi.

As we look to 2021, your support remains critical to our work of educating Tennesseans about why this racist, expensive, immoral system is failing. Together, we will pursue our mission, working to prevent executions and to damage the death penalty’s brand, while fighting for a more just Tennessee. 

Read DPIC’s Year End Report. (Graphic found in report)

The Case of Pervis Payne

In 1987, a 20-year-old Black man with an intellectual disability goes to visit his girlfriend’s apartment in Millington, a town in West Tennessee. He hears noises coming from across the hall and wonders if someone needs help. He opens the door to the apartment and walks into a nightmare. Three decades later, he finds himself facing execution on December 3, 2020. That man is Pervis Payne.

“I saw the worst thing I ever saw in my life and like my breath just had—had tooken—just took out of me … she was looking at me,” Mr. Payne testified at his trial. He saw Charisse Christopher, a woman who he didn’t know, lying on the floor bleeding, along with her daughter, Lacie Jo, and her son, Nicholas. Only Nicholas survived.

Panicking at the horror of the scene and fearing the police would blame him for the crime, Mr. Payne fled the building. The police found him, and as he feared, they arrested him and investigated no one else from that point forward.

At his trial, Shelby County prosecutors relied on racist tropes of black male hypersexuality and drug abuse to convict him, ignoring and suppressing evidence inconsistent with their theory. They even repeatedly referred to the victim’s “white skin” during the trial.

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Payne, allegedly high on drugs and alcohol, made an advance on the victim, and when she refused him, he stabbed her to death.

But Mr. Payne had no history of drug use, no history of violence, and no criminal record. After his arrest, his mother even asked the police to give her son a drug test to prove he was not using drugs. They refused.

To date, the courts and Shelby County prosecutors have refused Mr. Payne’s repeated requests to have DNA testing conducted on more than a dozen items of evidence that have never been subjected to DNA analysis. 

This is a case with a number of factors that make it ripe for a wrongful conviction and death sentence—a Black man with intellectual disability accused of murdering a white woman in a county with a long history of racial violence where prosecutors played to racist themes and withheld exculpatory evidence.

Yesterday, a coalition of prominent Memphis groups, spearheaded by the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, held a press conference urging the Shelby County DA to test the evidence and Governor Lee to commute Mr. Payne’s death sentence.

Speaking at the press conference, Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, president of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, asked the question, “What does the district attorney’s office have to hide? All we’re asking is for DNA to be tested. If this is a fair conviction, if your guys got it right, if you have nothing to hide, then give us the DNA test. When you resist a DNA test, we know something wrong has occurred. … If you’re trying to hide something, something bad has gone down.”

As I write this blog, the Shelby County DA’s office is arguing before the Shelby County Criminal Court not to allow the DNA testing. A judge will decide whether or not the testing will be conducted.

Pervis Payne is also a person living with intellectual disability, which alone, makes his scheduled December 3rd execution unconstitutional.

In the 2002 Atkins vs. Virginia decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that executing people with intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court explained that those with intellectual disability are a “special risk for wrongful execution” and that such defendants are often unable to assist their lawyers and make poor witnesses. These concerns played out in Pervis Payne’s case. 

The State of Tennessee has never denied that Mr. Payne has an intellectual disability, but the Tennessee courts have held that they do not have the power to hear his claim. Instead, they have urged the Tennessee General Assembly to create a legislative fix for individuals like Mr. Payne, who are denied an opportunity to present a claim of intellectual disability because of legal technicalities.

If the State of Tennessee wants to demonstrate that the pursuit of justice and truth is actually its top priority, then Pervis Payne must not be executed before he has an opportunity for his claims of intellectual disability and innocence to be fully and fairly heard.

Please visit Pervis Payne- Innocence Project and sign up to join Mr. Payne’s team of supporters. You will be updated about actions to take to raise awareness about this case and to secure clemency for Mr. Payne.

Tennessee Is Still Trying to Execute Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman Despite Undisputed Evidence of Racial Bias

In an interview with The New Yorker published on June 1, Bryan Stevenson reflects on the recent protests happening across our nation in response to the murder of George Floyd, stating:

We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease.

According to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, more than eight in 10 American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 took place in the South, and more than eight in 10 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South. 

In 1903, the Memphis Commercial Appeal noted that, “Life in this community is cheap: The life of a negro is so valueless that it is freely taken without fear of the future punishment in this world.”

Against this backdrop, Tennessee is litigating the case of Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, who has spent three decades on death row. His case provides a glaring example of how racial bias continues to infect Tennessee’s legal system and the State’s resistance to addressing it.

In 1987, Tennessee sentenced Abdur’Rahman to die after the prosecutor improperly prevented Black jurors from sitting on the case and committed multiple acts of misconduct in the trial, including withholding evidence and altering testimony. 

In August 2019, Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk declared that:

Overt racial bias has no place in the justice system. Further and most importantly, the pursuit of justice is incompatible with deception. Prosecutors must never be dishonest or mislead defense counsel, courts, or juries. 

District Attorney Funk recommended that Mr. Abdur’Rahman be resentenced to three life sentences, and the trial court agreed.

But a few weeks later, in an unprecedented move, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery ignored the racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct and appealed the court’s decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court. He declared his intention to seek an expedited process to move forward with Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s execution. 

Today, eight of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Abdur’Rahman to death say they would not have done so if they heard all the facts.

BREAKING NEWS: On Tuesday, June 9, 2020, at 9:00 a.m. CT, the State of Tennessee will argue before the Court of Criminal Appeals that Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence should be reinstated.

To observe these proceedings, see the information below:

Live Stream 

To learn more about this case visit,

Deadly Double Standard

My heart has been broken again by the death of Ahmaud Arbery. A young black man goes for a jog, part of his regular routine, and ends up dead– racially profiled, assumed guilty of something, hunted down, and then executed by white vigilantes.

Though I don’t post much on my personal Facebook page, I read a New York Times opinion piece by Charles M. Blow on Ahmaud’s murder and felt that I had to put it out there for others to read. The particular quote from the piece that struck me was the following:

As has too often been the case in this country, the law works to black people’s detriment and sometimes their demise.

Slavery was legal. The Black Codes were legal. Sundown towns were legal. Sharecropping was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Racial covenants were legal. Mass incarceration is legal. Chasing a black man or boy with your gun because you suspect him a criminal is legal. Using lethal force as an act of self-defense in a physical dispute that you provoke and could easily have avoided is, often, legal.

And, of course, we could add to that list that capital punishment is legal.

Though I would argue that the double standard of the legal system that is playing out in Ahmaud Arbery’s case is a key reason why it shouldn’t be.

Today, I read another piece by Daniele Selby posted by the Innocence Project. Selby’s article goes into even more detail about how the racism so grossly on display in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, also infects our legal system. Selby writes:

Arbery’s death highlights glaring inequality and racism that pervades all aspects of life in the United States, including the legal system. Throughout history, Black people — and Black men, in particular — have been robbed of the presumption of innocence and a fair shot at justice.

Innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people, the National Registry of Exonerations reported. And, while Black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 40% of the nearly 2.3 million incarcerated people in the country. This is not because of Black people commit more crimes, but, in large part, because of the way Black communities and other communities of color are policed and presumed guilty. Numerous studies have shown that Black and Latinx people are more likely to be stopped, searched, and suspected of a crime (even when no crime has occurred), due to implicit and explicit biases.

Anyone who continues to believe that our nation’s legal system is fairly and accurately applied is not paying attention. As long as this double standard is our reality, there is no room for the death penalty.

Read Charles M. Blow’s NYTimes piece

Read Daniele Selby’s piece

A Message from TADP Executive Director, March 23, 2020

As I write today, my thoughts are with you, and everyone in our global family. Like me, I’m sure you are struck by the profound changes and uncertainty that recent weeks have brought us.

TADP’s office in East Nashville sustained minor damage during the March 3rd tornado, but our neighbors just two streets over experienced destruction that will take months to address. Our beloved TADP Board Chair Bob Goodrich died on March 7th after a three-year struggle with leukemia, and COVID-19 has all but shut down the state.  

Today the Metro Public Health Department, “Safer at Home Order,” went into effect for Nashville and Davidson County residents and businesses. All businesses not performing essential services have been ordered closed for 14 days. I was already mostly working from home, but this order means that I am totally working from home now. 

In these difficult times, we are also thinking of the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities—including those in our jails, prisons, and on death row. Even amid other crises, TADP’s work to stop executions and end the death penalty in Tennessee continues, and we are grateful for your partnership in that work.   

TADP had plans to launch a statewide campaign on March 11. We have postponed that campaign because of COVID-19. However, we are monitoring the situation and will launch as soon as it is strategically wise to do so. 

On the legislative front, the Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion Coalition (TASMIE) successfully advocated for the bill to exclude those with severe mental illness from the death penalty, which passed through the full House Judiciary Committee (25 members) on March 11!

This bipartisan vote is another huge hurdle for this legislation. The Tennessee General Assembly is now in recess until at least June 1, but in the meantime, TASMIE is developing plans to conduct online educational forums about the bill, including the use of the documentary film Too Ill to Execute.  

If you have not yet had the opportunity to watch this powerful film, I encourage you to do so during this time when so many of us find ourselves isolating. Share it with your friends and ask them to watch it as well. 

And though a few years old now, the TADP short film To Honor Life is another important educational tool to introduce Tennesseans to the problems with the death penalty.  Again, this film is a great way to introduce the myths and facts about the death penalty system and to share powerful stories of the system’s impact on those caught up in it. 

On March 18, attorneys for Oscar Smith, who is scheduled to be executed on June 4 in Tennessee, requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court stay his execution because of COVID-19 and its impact on his legal team. 

Assistant Federal Defender Kelley Henry stated in the motion to the court, “It would be irresponsible and against the public’s interest to conduct the necessary investigation during this pandemic. Mr. Smith’s team cannot conduct the work necessary to fulfill their obligation to him without putting themselves and others at risk. There is a tension between counsels’ obligation to Mr. Smith and to their own personal safety and that of their families and co-workers.”  

Three other Tennessee inmates are scheduld to be executed this year: Harold Nichols on Aug. 4; Byron Black on Oct. 8; and Pervis Payne on Dec. 3. 

TADP will continue to share information and updates as we have them. For now, please take good care of yourselves. 

A Tale of Two Cases and One Horribly Broken System

There are not many things that inspire me to wake up at 5:00 a.m. My grandmother used to say that the good Lord didn’t intend us to be up before there was light to see by, and I took her words to heart. Still, I had to make the drive from Nashville to Memphis on Monday to get to the Shelby County Courthouse by 9:00 a.m. when arguments would be made in the Sedley Alley case.

Mr. Alley was convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins in Shelby County. He confessed to the crime after a police interrogation that lasted for hours but later admitted that he had no memory of the night of the crime because of his heavy drinking. Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false as key details in his statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence.

Other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts also raise questions about Mr. Alley’s guilt. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s vehicle. Shoe prints at the scene did not match Mr. Alley’s shoes. A key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described the man as 5’6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-length hair, and a light complexion.

But even with all of this questionable evidence, the state had the confession and forged ahead. Numerous items of evidence from the crime scene that were in the State’s custody were never tested for DNA, including men’s red underwear found near Ms. Collins’s body that police believed were worn by her attacker.

In 2006, just prior to the Mr. Alley’s execution, even the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole recommended the State do the testing. But then-Governor Bredesen did not take action. Instead, he punted the decision to the state courts, which refused the testing.

On June 28, 2006, Sedley Alley was executed by the State of Tennessee. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court admitted the ruling in Mr. Alley’s case was wrong and overruled it in State v. Powers.

In another plot twist only a few months ago, the Innocence Project received a letter from law enforcement sources in St. Louis informing them that a man named Thomas Bruce is now under indictment there for homicide and rape. The letter indicated that they believe this man might be a serial offender. After law enforcement looked into Mr. Bruce’s background and the places that he previously lived, they discovered that he was taking courses at the same Avionics Training School in Millington as Ms. Collins in the months prior to her murder.

Once Sedley Alley’s daughter, April Alley, who is also the executor of his estate, became aware of this new information, she petitioned the Criminal Court for Shelby County for the post-conviction DNA testing. She has also requested that Governor Lee order the DNA testing pursuant to his power to grant posthumous pardons.

I did make it to the hearing just in time for the proceedings. I heard attorneys Barry Scheck and Stephen Ross Johnson make a powerful case for the testing. I heard three death row exonerees, also present for the hearing, tell the media why DNA testing is so critical to ensure that innocent people are not executed and to get to the truth in this case. I also heard the Shelby County Assistant DA argue that the law only allows the person convicted of the crime to request testing, not his or her estate, so the testing should not be allowed.

This is the State’s argument? So the Tennessee court okays the execution of Sedley Alley without allowing him DNA testing, reverses the decision five years after his execution, and now the State argues that for testing to occur now, Mr. Alley has to request it. The State does know that it executed him, right?

This ridiculous argument led the Johnson City Press Editorial staff to write, “Of all the preposterous legal situations we’ve read about in recent years, an effort this week to halt a DNA inquiry in a Tennessee execution review might just take the cake.” Amen to that.

Obviously, we don’t know what the testing will show…precisely why we need it. But regardless of the results, the testing will get us closer to the truth. The truth is all that April Alley wants. And we all should want the truth too, not just because it is what our justice system is supposed to be about but also because it might identify another person as the perpetrator of this crime, a person who has been out there since 1985 possibly committing other heinous crimes.

This push for DNA testing comes at the same time that the Tennessee Attorney General has requested that nine more execution dates be set and made an unprecedented move to appeal a decision made by Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk to reduce Abu Ali Abudur’Rahman’s death sentence to life. General Funk agreed to this new sentence because of the overt racism and prosecutorial misconduct that infected Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s trial. In appealing the decision made by an elected DA and approved by a judge, the State has demonstrated yet again, as it has in Mr. Alley’s case, that what it is actually defending is not justice but maintaining a conviction, not truth but a broken process.

Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s attorney Brad MacLean shared the same sentiment at the conclusion of the press conference about Abu Ali’s case last Friday:

The AG claims he is upholding the ‘rule of law’. Our question is what rule of law is he talking about? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a racist prosecutor to use race in jury selection? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a prosecutor to be dishonest? Is he talking about a rule that says our criminal justice system cannot correct a grave error? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK to inflict cruel and unusual punishment? Is he talking about a rule that says a district attorney general is not to gain justice, but rather he is to pursue a victory at any cost? Those are not our rules of law.

As citizens, we must impress upon Governor Lee that Tennessee’s death penalty cannot be trusted. These two cases bear witness to that fact. In the interest of truth and justice, all executions must be stopped in Tennessee so that our state can take a long, hard look at the current process, examining it from top to bottom. A comprehensive, independent analysis of this system must be conducted before any other person is put to death in Tennessee. Justice demands nothing less.


So Many Questions

It has been a week since Don Johnson was executed. The question of whether or not Governor Lee would grant clemency hung over us in Tennessee until late into the afternoon on Tuesday, May 14. Then the answer came, “No.”

So many of us, including Don’s stepdaughter Cynthia Vaughn, whose mother, Connie, was the victim of Don’s crime, pled for mercy. His church family at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church prayed for mercy, holding a prayer service a week ago Saturday in front of the State Capitol, asking Governor Lee to consider Don’s transformation in prison, a transformation made possible through Don’s Christian faith.

There were questions about what it would take to convince the governor to act on Don’s behalf. There was tension and stress, and even disagreement about what we should do as the state moved towards this execution. Cynthia, whose journey to forgive Don had taken her decades, was getting more and more questions. She was publicly pitted against her own brother, who just days before the execution, came out in support of it.

Voices on social media became more agitated and in some cases, meaner, the closer we got to the date. Those who loved and visited Don on death row became more desperate. Don’s attorneys worked night and day to stop this execution. Nerves were frayed, and emotions raw.

For all the questions that surround the death penalty, the question of what it does to us becomes obvious as any execution approaches, regardless of whether we support it or oppose it. The death penalty ties us in knots. It stokes our fears and our baser instincts. It teases and torments. It kills, but not only the inmates. Every time an execution occurs, no matter if we question it or justify it, part of us dies too.

Don’s execution demonstrated once again the emptiness of this ritual.

Don was not an unremorseful person who denied his involvement in his wife’s murder or blamed others for what he did. He acknowledged his role, took responsibility, and offered a public apology. He was ready to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars for his actions. He didn’t ask for freedom.

Don wasn’t angry at the world, the corrections staff, or the governor, though he could have been. Don was a man changed by the love he came to know through his encounter with Jesus Christ behind prison walls and that love made him new. Don was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church twenty years ago, ministered to inmates and folks on the outside, and served as a light on the inside, even refusing a special last meal and asking that those living on the streets be fed instead. Don’s life since his incarceration didn’t fit the stereotype. Who was “the monster” in this story?

Governor Lee made the decision to allow Don’s execution to proceed. Don accepted the decision. Don’s ultimate faith was in God and not in the governor anyway, though he had hoped for a different outcome. It wasn’t to be.

And so another question, “What has changed?”

Don Johnson is dead. Connie Johnson is dead. Correctional staff, attorneys, communities of faith, friends, media witnesses, even members of Connie’s family are now likely traumatized by what we did on May 16, whether they know it or not. Are the scales of justice finally balanced now?

And what about our state? Are we better off?

How did Don’s execution make us safer?

How did it help to prevent future crimes?

Did anyone gain better access to mental and behavioral health care because of Don’s execution?

Did Don’s death offer any avenues for more and better intervention in the lives of children who are exposed to horrible trauma and abuse as he was?

Did one more police officer or correctional officer receive better training or an increase in pay?

Did Don’s death help Cynthia to heal?

Did it address the division in Connie’s family?

Did it make death row safer for correctional staff and inmates?

Did it model respect for the dignity of life?

These are some of the questions that I am left with a week later. And though I don’t pretend that the issue isn’t complicated, I don’t think the answers to these questions are.

For now, though, we will likley go on pretending that we don’t know these answers because if we admit that we do, we would have to end the death penalty.

But the questions aren’t going away. We will keep asking them over and over again. And more people will join us and start asking these questions too as they learn how broken and morally bankrupt the death penalty system really is.

Questions and more questions and more questions until those with the power to stop these executions decide to give us honest answers. Until then, we will keep asking.

Photo from Saturday, May 11, Prayer Service 


Test the DNA: Sedley Alley’s Daughter Deserves to Know the Truth

Today, April Alley, the daughter of Sedley Alley, announced that she is petitioning the Shelby County Criminal Court in Memphis for post-conviction DNA testing of the evidence in her father’s case. Ms. Alley is also asking Governor Bill Lee to use his executive authority to order DNA testing of the untested evidence.

Tennessee executed Sedley Alley in 2006 after he was convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins. DNA evidence from the crime scene was not tested in 1985 and has never been tested. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and Vanessa Potkin, post-conviction litigation director for the Innocence Project, represent Ms. Alley.

A press conference with April Alley, Barry Scheck, and Vanessa Potkin was held today in Nashville to inform the public about this petition. Sabrina Butler Smith and Ray Krone, death row exonerees and members of Witness to Innocence, also spoke. Both Mr. Krone and Mrs. Butler Smith now live in Tennessee and frequently share their stories of wrongful conviction through TADP’s Sharing Our Stories program. Paul House and his mother Joyce, had hoped to be in attendance today, but Mr. House was unable to attend because of his health. He developed multiple sclerosis on Tennessee’s death row, which went untreated for many years. Mr. House was released after nearly 23 years on death row after DNA evidence demonstrated that he was wrongfully convicted.  

Tennessee Federal Defender Kelley Henry, who worked on Sedley Alley’s case before his execution, as well as Tennessee attorney Stephen Ross Johnson were also on hand to speak about this case and the lingering questions of innocence that could be resolved if the DNA is tested. 

Ms. Alley, the executor of her father’s estate, broke down at the conference as she tried to speak. Her request is simple: to find out   the truth by testing the DNA. Every Tennessean should want to know the truth in this case, including the Shelby County DA’s office and the governor. 

“There has never been a full and fair hearing on Mr. Alley’s guilt or innocence. This case has all the tell-tale signs of a wrongful conviction – a confession that has been demonstrated to be false by objective forensic evidence, mistaken eyewitness identification, and, most disturbing, the refusal to test DNA evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Alley or removed the doubts about his guilt,” said Mr. Scheck.

In 2006, on the eve of Mr. Alley’s execution, the Tennessee Board of Parole recommended that then-Governor Bredesen stay Mr. Alley’s execution and order DNA testing. Instead of exercising his power to order DNA testing, the governor directed Mr. Alley’s defense team to present their request for testing to the Tennessee court

Many items of evidence were presented for testing, including men’s red underwear that the police believed was worn by the murderer found near the victim’s body. Then-available DNA testing might have excluded Mr. Alley as the perpetrator or provided a match with another man in the CODIS DNA database. The Tennessee courts incorrectly ruled that Mr. Alley was not entitled to DNA testing, even if the testing could produce a match to a third party with a history of committing similar offenses. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court expressly overruled Mr. Alley’s case in State v. Powers and clarified that Tennessee’s post-conviction DNA statute intended to allow a defendant to prove innocence by comparing DNA from a defendant to DNA from other potentially guilty people, including hits from the CODIS DNA databank.

Barry Scheck reiterated at today’s press conference, “The courts got it wrong in 2006 when they allowed Mr. Alley to be executed before testing the DNA. If Mr. Alley were alive today, he would be entitled to DNA testing under the Powers ruling and the plain language of the post-conviction DNA analysis statute. We now have a chance to learn the truth in this case.”

The Petition for post-conviction DNA relief details how a reinvestigation of the case over the years has shown that the evidence against Mr. Alley was weak.

For example, Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false. Key details in Mr. Alley’s statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence. For instance, Mr. Alley’s confession states that he hit the victim with his car. Autopsy records show that Ms. Collins was not hit by a car. Mr. Alley’s confession states that he stabbed Ms. Collins in the head with a screwdriver. Autopsy records show that she was not stabbed in the head with a screwdriver. Mr. Alley told his daughter that he was coerced into confessing. He was highly intoxicated on the night of the crime, had no recollection of committing the crime, and did not believe he had done it.

Other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts do not match Mr. Alley. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s car. Recovered shoe prints were not from Mr. Alley’s shoes. A key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described that man as 5’ 6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-long hair, and a light complexion. 

The Innocence Project began looking for evidence in this case again because they recently received a tip from law enforcement that someone who was indicted for a brutal murder and sexual assault in another state might be the actual perpetrator in the Alley case. This person went to the same military school as the Tennessee victim in the time leading up to the crime. There is also evidence about a jilted boyfriend who was an alternate suspect. 

The media is covering this announcement and we will get you more information as it become available. If you want to learn more about this case, read the New York Times piece that was published today.

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Cynthia Vaughn Asks for Mercy for the Man Convicted of Killing Her Mother

The Tennessean recently published an op-ed by Cynthia Vaughn, in which she asks that her stepfather, Don Johnson, be spared the death penalty on May 16th. Don was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Cynthia’s mother, Connie, when Cynthia was only seven years old. For most of her life, Cynthia wanted to see Don executed.

In the op-ed, Cynthia shares her painful journey from fervently supporting Don’s execution to advocating for his clemency. She reflects on the freedom that she experienced in forgiving him as well as her fears about the additional trauma his execution will likely inflict on her.

She writes, “After being trapped in the death penalty process for most of my life and finally receiving some peace, I now face more trauma and loss. Over these past few years, Don has become one of my last connections to my mother, and his execution will not feel like justice to me. It will feel like losing my mother all over again. I want to save his life.”

Please consider joining with Cynthia in asking Governor Lee to spare Don Johnson. You can take action and learn more about this incredible story here.