Study Committee Hears from TN Justices and Barry Scheck

Tuesday proved to be a very full day for the members of the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee. The meeting began at 10:00 a.m. with comments from Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade and new Chief Justice Janice Holder. The Justices addressed several of the recommendations which the Committee is considering including bypassing the Criminal Court of Appeals (CCA) for capital cases and instead having all death penalty appeals go straight to the Tennessee Supreme Court, as well as the creation of an independent authority to oversee capital defense services in Tennessee.

Justice Wade stated that he and other Justices do not feel that eliminating the CCA level of appeals is a good idea as meaningful review should not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. He likened the current structure, which includes review of death cases by the CCA, as the difference between dealing with a shotgun blast wound (more scattered) and a rifle wound (more precise).

Currently, the CCA reviews every appeal and identifies a few key issues upon which the TN Supreme Court can focus its attention. This selection process allows the TN Supreme Court to give more precise focus to only a few issues as opposed to addressing every issue. Though Rep. Dunn appreciated the comments, he still believes that eliminating one tier of the process (CCA) might be beneficial in the long term.

Concerning the independent authority, Justice Holder stated that the court did consider creating such an authority in 2004 but wanted more evidence that it worked in other states. Now that other states, such as North Carolina, have moved in that direction, the evidence does suggest that an authority could improve the process. She believes that the Court would support such a move by the legislature.

After lunch, the Committee heard from Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project working to uncover wrongful convictions, not only to free the innocent but to find the guilty. Scheck spoke for three hours concerning all the issues which need to be addressed by the Tennessee Committee, including DNA preservation, eyewitness identification procedures, and recording custodial interrogations about which he stated that “the only people who don’t like for interrogations to be recorded are the guilty.”

Scheck also fully endorsed the idea of creating an independent authority to oversee capital defense services in Tennessee and stated that of 187 death sentences given in Tennessee since reinstatement in 1977, 39 of the defense attorneys in those cases have been disciplined with 11 of them remaining on the list from which Tennessee judges still appoint attorneys to represent indigent defendants.

Other frightening facts shared by Scheck included:

  • There have been 20 exonerations in the city of Dallas alone since DNA testing became available.
  • Of those inmates exonerated by DNA, 78% were identified by false eyewitness testimony.
  • Kirk Bloodsworth who was exonerated by DNA evidence was also identified by 5 separate witnesses demonstrating the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

Tom Lee shared some Tennessee polling data showing that though a majority of Tennesseans do support the death penalty, a majority also feel that the state has made errors and that innocent people may have been executed. Given that data, Charlie Strobel believes that this Committee must do a thorough study, not only to address the obvious systemic problems with the system, but to restore public trust.

We are grateful for the press coverage of this important meeting and hope that members of the Committee were paying attention. It was disappointing, however, that three of the legislative members of the Committee were not present for Scheck’s testimony. I hope that all of these legislators and other Committee members who missed the meeting will read the transcripts of Scheck’s testimony or watch the testimony online as it is so important that they hear the data and consider it as they move forward.

Read an article about the Committee meeting here.

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