We received word yesterday from the Tennessee Department of Correction that Richard Austin, the state’s oldest and longest serving death row inmate, died at DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville on Sunday. Austin was sentenced to death in 1978 after a conviction in Shelby County of accessory before the fact to murder. He was the first person sentenced to die under Tennessee’s current death penalty law enacted in 1977.
Though given a death sentence, Austin ultimately served a life sentence. This sentence held Austin accountable for the death of undercover officer Julian Watkins while protecting society. Unfortunately, what his death sentence didn’t do was bring any closure to Watkins’ family as they waited 30 years for the sentence to be carried out. Had Austin received a life sentence in 1978, the family would have been spared many agonizing years of waiting for an execution that would never come.
The reality of our broken system is that, even with years of appeals, the system still makes grave mistakes with 129 people having been released from death rows nationwide when evidence of their innocence emerged. Because all of these appeals are necessary in an attempt to ensure that such mistakes are avoided, the system must include them. So, by maintaining the death penalty and the appeals process that accompanies it, victims are promised healing and closure from a system that rarely, if ever, is able to provide it.
Furthermore, the cost of seeking the death sentence for Richard Austin was certainly high, as the costs of all capital cases are. Yet, he ultimately received a life sentence anyway. Why do we continue to waste the state’s already strapped resources on the death penalty when we could save victims’ families a whole lot of agony and the state a whole lot of money by making life without parole our maximum punishment in Tennessee?
I continue to wonder why we as a society hold on to this system. When are we going to be able to take a more rational look at how it works (or doesn’t work) and determine that there is another way to handle the violence around us?
I hope that we will all keep the family of Officer Julian Watkins and Richard Austin in our thoughts and prayers this week. Both families have suffered much, and I hope they all can find some peace.
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