Tennessee Study Committee Issues a Report

On February 19, the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty met for the final time. Along with the legislative recommendations on which it had already decided, the Committee voted 12-2 to issue a report highlighting the issues it covered and summaries of the testimony received.

Sadly, the two votes against this final report came from the Attorney Generals representative, Elizabeth Ryan, and the District Attorneys’ representative, Al Schmutzer. In fact, Ms. Ryan first objected to the Committee’s legitimacy in even meeting to discuss a report, claiming that the Committee officially ceased to exist in December 2008. After Senator Jackson explained that the Clerk of the Senate was clear that such a meeting to finalize a report is a common occurrence for study committees and that the Committee was well within its rights to meet, she then insisted that any report issued by this Committee consist of only the language of the five or so recommendations voted on by Committee in earlier meetings. In other words, she objected to any written record of the testimony received over the 14 months of the Committee’s work.

And, frankly, if I was Ms. Ryan, I would object as well. For Ms. Ryan and the AG who are charged with supporting this broken system, the inclusion of such testimony is a real problem since almost no testimony received in 14 months supports the fairness or accuracy of Tennessee’s current system. In fact, as someone who attended every Committee meeting and all but one subcommittee meeting, I heard absolutely NOTHING which indicates a system that works. Even those who support the death penalty acknowledged the issues of excessive costs, delays, and lack of adequate defense for those on trial for capital murder. The real disagreement among Committee members was not the fact that grave problems exist but how to address those problems. And, from the DA and AG reps, maintaining the status quo in some form continued to be the most common suggestion.

Though the Committee did not address a number of issues, the issues which were covered revealed a system which is not only unfair but does risk the execution of an innocent person. And of course, as I sat there listening to the discussion on Thursday, my eyes welled up on several occasions because I couldn’t help but think of Steve Henley, for whom this report comes too late. I got very emotional again as I thought of Steve’s lack of adequate defense at his trial, the fact that Steve did not have the resources to pay for a qualified lawyer, the fact that Steve’s death sentence was secured based on the testimony of a drug addict co-defendant who had implicated himself and made a deal, the fact that even as he lay strapped to a gurney about to endure a protocol which has not yet been found to be constitutional by the 6th Circuit, he maintained his innocence. These facts haunt me and will haunt me for the rest of my life. How could we execute Steve Henley under such circumstances?

Charles Strobel, Committee member representing Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, wrote an editorial which appeared in Monday’s Tennessean stating why this state needs a moratorium on executions until these issues of fairness and accuracy can be addressed. Such a moratorium comes too late for Steve, but not for the other 87 people on Tennessee’s death row and for the citizens of this state who are concerned about fairness and justice.

I heard from Steve’s family yesterday about how upset they are to learn about this Committee’s findings now, given what just happened to Steve. How do you explain to a traumatized family that the state didn’t see fit to give your son, your daddy, your brother, 30 more days of life in order to hear what this Committee had to say but instead executed him just two weeks before the Committee issued its findings?

Now, the legislature must act on the recommendations of this Committee if Tennesseans are to have any confidence that the lawmakers are even attempting to remedy the problems. If not, justice cannot and will not occur in Tennessee–not for victims’ families who cannot be sure that the right person is held accountable for the murder of their loved one nor for defendants whose lives are on the line.

Read Charles Strobel’s editorial here.

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