Tennessee Considering All Options for Executions

Tennessee Department of Corrections officials are facing tough decisions as they try to navigate death penalty statutes requiring lethal injection and the current shortage of sodium thiopental. Following the seizure of execution drugs by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, Dorinda Carter, stated that “The commissioner isn’t prepared to discuss what will happen next. He is still reviewing our options.” Options for the state include switching to another drug or reverting to previous execution methods, such as hanging or electrocution. Neither option provides a simple solution as many drug manufacturers are refusing to sell the drugs used for executions and any change in method would have to be initiated in the legislature and meet constitutional requirements.

While opponents of the death penalty appreciate the recent lack of executions, they still hold that the arguments over lethal injection gloss over more systemic problems. Reverend Stacy Rector, commenting on the the current execution dilemma, stated, “It is a huge problem, but it doesn’t get at the real core issue, which is, can we as a society maintain the death penalty system given all of its problems? I think it’s just one more symptom of a huge problem that we don’t need to have. We could be spending our energy and our resources focusing more on helping murder victims’ families to heal.”

Tennessee State Representative Barrett Rich holds a drastically different view point, arguing, “What I want is to do whatever it takes to discourage people from killing people… If they want to paint us into the corner and stop us from having lethal injection, then I certainly have no problem with hanging or putting someone to death with a firing squad.” While Rich’s comments certainly display a great deal of emotion, the deterrence effect he is suggesting has little basis in available research.

A study found in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reports that, “Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide.” Generally, states without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates than states with the death penalty. A New York Times review in 2000 of murder rates over the past 20 years found that the murder rate in states with the death penalty has been 48% to 101% higher than in non-death penalty states.  And, consistent with previous years, the 2006 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that the South had the highest murder rate and accounts for over 80% of the  executions in the nation. The Northeast, which has less than 1% of executions, again had the lowest murder rate.

Criminal Justice Professor Margaret Vandiver of the University of Memphis in a recent interview with The City Paper (Nashville)  stated that, “since 1977, about one-fifth of 1 percent of homicides have resulted in an execution.”  Such an infinitesimal number of executions for all homicides in this country would make any possible deterrent effect unlikely given that the vast majority of those who murder do not receive a death sentence.

Regardless of the course Tennessee Department of Corrections officials choose to take, legal challenges and further delays ensure that the “justice” promised in our system will remain elusive and unsatisfactory.

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