News Story concerning Promptness Subcommittee

Last Thursday, the Promptness subcommittee of the Tennessee Study Committee on the Administration of the Death Penalty met for several hours with some compelling testimony and discussion.

One topic concerned the creation of an independent coordinator for services available to surviving victims’ families of first degree murder. This idea was raised by Committee member, Charlie Strobel, who himself experienced the horrible murder of his mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, in Nashville in 1986. As a representative of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, Charlie is looking for ways to help surviving families navigate the justice system following a murder with an independent advocate who is employed by neither the DA’s nor the defense. Currently, most victims’ advocates in Tennessee are located in the office of the District Attorneys. Though Charlie appreciates the work of these advocates, he believes that it is important that surviving families also have an independent person to talk to when difficult questions arise which families might feel uncomfortable asking either the DA’s or defense teams, both who have a stake in the process.

Many on the Committee felt that this proposed idea had real merit. Verna Wyatt, a Committee member and victims’ advocate representing “You Have the Power” questioned the need for such an independent coordinator. However, it is hard for me to imagine why the creation of a neutral person whose only agenda is to serve surviving families would be problematic. Perhaps more will be revealed.

Additionally, I was troubled by a Dennis Ferrier story which ran on WSMV Channel 4 on the Thursday news following the meeting concerning the length of time for post-conviction proceedings. At the prior subcommittee meeting on July 24, Mrs. Wyatt brought a resolution forward asking the legislature to urge the judiciary to comply with a 1995 law stating that such procedures should be limited to one year. After much testimony and discussion, the 1995 law mandating a one year time limit was found to be completely unrealistic and incompatible with a meaningful review.

Mr. Ferrier was not present for that meeting on July 24 when two judges appeared before the committee to talk about why this law cannot realistically be followed. Don Dawson of the Post-Conviction Defenders’ Office as well as Bill Redick, a Committee member, agreed with the judges and thoughtfully laid out all the reasons why this is the case.

If Mr. Ferrier had been present at that meeting, he would have heard testimony from these judges stating that in many cases, post conviction attorneys are starting from scratch on these cases as so many defendants get little to no defense in their original trials. Post-conviction attorneys have to begin at the beginning, doing all the research, interviews of witnesses and family members, and study that should have been done the first time around. Also, procedural issues can pop up which delay proceedings. In fact, at the Promptness subcommittee on June 19th, Elizabeth Ryan of the AG’s office and a Committee member, testified that delays in proceedings can be caused by the defense, the state, and even the courts themselves.

In his testimony on July 24, Judge Harris referenced the Gussie Vann case in which he just ruled in post-conviction proceedings that Vann deserved a new trial and was possibly innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Vann’s case has been in post conviction litigation for nine years. All of us can agree that nine years is too long, but executing an innocent person should never be an option either.

Mrs. Wyatt brought the resolution for a good reason. She believes that victims’ families should not be told that such proceedings will take a year if that is not accurate. Families suffer enough without having to deal with unrealistic expectations created by ill advised laws. Agreed!

By the end of Thursday’s meeting, subcommittee members decided that what was really needed was accurate data to understand the post-conviction process. Mrs. Wyatt agreed to bring a bill up for consideration in the next meeting requiring reports from the administrative office of the courts to be filed with the legislature concerning how long these cases are taking as well as reasons for delay. With that information, the 1995 law can be updated to reflect a more accurate picture of the time that these cases should realistically take.

However, that conclusion was not brought out in Ferrier’s story. Instead, he questioned the integrity of the judges who are simply trying to do meaningful reviews of these cases and cannot get them completed in the arbitrary time limits of this law. I found Mrs. Wyatt’s quote in the story concerning the judges to be unfair as she states, “They are either dragging their feet because they don’t believe in the death penalty, or they don’t care and it looks really arrogant. It looks very arrogant.”

Might I offer another explanation for the reason for the delay. Perhaps the reason that these cases take some time to sort out is that most capital defendants in Tennessee are poor and go to trial with inadequate–if not invisible–defense with issues of faulty eyewitness testimony, alibi witnesses who are never called to testify, or severe mental illness that is never even mentioned in their trial. This total lack of adequate defense representation means that post-conviction attorneys are starting from scratch and need time. Perhaps it is also that judges want to be sure that if a person’s life is at stake, all measures are taken to ensure the defendant is getting a fair and accurate hearing; and in fact, the delay has nothing to do with anti-death penalty sentiment or arrogance as Mrs. Wyatt states.

And, if Mr. Ferrier had been present for the preceding committee meeting, he would have heard all of this testimony firsthand and might have envisioned his story a different way. What I think he would have heard over and over again is that if defense attorneys had the resources and training that they needed on the front end, post-conviction procedures would not take nearly the time that they currently take.

I think his story would have been about why Tennessee needs an independent authority to oversee capital defense in this state to ensure that capital defendants are being defended adequately.

Read or view Ferrier’s story here.

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