The Promptness sub-committee (whose title is a bit misleading) met for the first time yesterday to begin with a broad overview of the issues which it is to address including: the needs of surviving victims of murder and execution; direct appeal and post conviction review proceedings; mental retardation, mental illness, and the death penalty; and geographic, economic, and racial discrimination in the death penalty system.
In the meeting yesterday, Verna Wyatt, Director of You Have the Power, a victims’ advocacy organization showed the film, “The Other Side of Death Row,” which interviewed several family members of those who were murdered in Tennessee and the painful journey which they have endured waiting for executions to be carried out.
What I repeatedly heard in that video was the torment that these families go through over years and years of appeals. In fact, two of the family members stated that if it was going to take so long, why didn’t the state just give these guys life without parole? Another recurring theme was that “closure” is an elusive concept that no sentence can ever bring. This video highlighted for me that the death penalty system does not serve victims’ who agonize for years as cases are in legal limbo, and in fact, adds to their suffering.
The Tennessee state Treasurer also spoke to the victim’s compensation program and the financial help that is available to crime victims’ or families of crime victims. This program is comparable to many state programs and does good work in addressing some of the needs of victims. However, as with all state programs, money is tight. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more assistance could be given victims if the millions of dollars we spend to seek the death penalty (often resulting in a life sentences anyway) could be used to supplement this needed compensation fund.
Elizabeth Ryan of the Attorney Generals’ office testified concerning the direct appeal and post conviction process, though with significant gaps of information which the committee still needs to address. Specifically, the question which continued to be asked by Representative Dunn, “where does the process get so delayed?” Ryan conceded that sometimes it is the state who delays and sometimes the defense. However, though many assume that defendants plug up the process with appeals, when talking to attorneys and inmates alike, I have discovered that it is often the courts themselves who are slow to act, sometimes sitting on cases for years before they render a decision. Limiting appeals is not the answer to dealing with the delays, particularly considering that even with a lengthy appeals process, 129 people have been released from death rows nationally when evidence of their innocence emerged, sometimes after 20 years on death row.
Finally, Dr. Pam Auble testified about her work with many of the inmates on Tennessee’s death row and how mental illness and brain injury affect that population of people. Very significantly, she discussed the population of inmates (12 of the 49 with whom she has worked) who have severe mental illness with psychotic features and who can’t appreciate reality. Many of these inmates have long histories of such mental illness and have been diagnosed years before coming to death row.
The case of former Tennessee death row inmate, Richard Taylor, is an example of the problems with attempting to execute those with severe mental illness. Besides the fact that such executions are immoral since these inmates cannot appreciate the reality of their crimes, seeking their executions is extremely time consuming and wasteful. Richard Taylor, who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness, received a death sentence for killing a correctional officer while off of his medication. After 20 years of litigation, Taylor recently accepted a life sentence rather than enduring a new trial. Imagine the years of agony the victims‘ family would have been spared as well as the millions of dollars to the state if a life sentence had be given to this very sick man in the first place.
TCASK will continue to keep you informed of these Committee meetings and hope that you will consider attending. There is so much work to be done, and I applaud the committee members for their commitment to this process. As citizens, we must inform our legislators about this work and demand that serious reform be a result. Reforms to the system will reduce the numbers of people sentenced to death and demonstrate to citizens that we do not need the death penalty to protect society and hold others accountable. In fact, the death penalty may do far more harm to all of us.
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