Myths vs. Facts
The death penalty is fair.
ARBITRARY APPLICATION OF TENNESSEE’S DEATH PENALTY:
Tennessee’s death penalty system is plagued by troubling economic, geographic, and racial disparities.
A 2018 Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy report called Tennessee’s system “a cruel lottery” that is “riddled with arbitrariness.” The authors of the report also found that the facts of the crime did not predict whether a death sentence would be imposed. Rather, the best indicators were arbitrary factors such as where the murder occurred, the race of the defendant, the quality of the defense, and the views of the prosecutors and judges assigned to the case
Mental illness, intellectual disability, racial bias, and ineffective counsel play a role in the cases of the individuals currently scheduled for execution or for whom the state is asking for new execution dates.
Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman’s trial was plagued by undisputed racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct. Today, eight of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Abdur’Rahman to death say they would not have done so if they had heard all the facts.
Despite having a severe mental illness, Tony Carruthers was allowed to represent himself at trial and “did more to get himself convicted and sentenced to death than did the prosecution,” filings by his attorneys state. The impact of Carruthers’ behavior was so bad that his co-defendant won a new trial and is now free after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
Byron Black has an IQ of 67, has suffered brain damage, and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Shelby County is responsible for nearly half of Tennessee’s current death row population. Since 2001, only 8 counties, representing 34% of Tennessee’s population, have imposed sustained death sentences. (“Tennessee’s Death Penalty Lottery,” Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy, pp. 138-139)
The overwhelming majority of those on Tennessee’s death row could not to afford to hire their own defense at trial.
More than 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white.
In a 2012 report, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) looked at jury selection procedures in eight Southern states, including Tennessee. EJI uncovered shocking evidence of racial discrimination in every state, including counties where prosecutors excluded nearly 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service; majority black counties where defendants were tried by all white juries; and some prosecutors who were actually trained to exclude people from juries based on their race as well as on how to conceal this bias.
Again, according to Tennessee’s Death Penalty Lottery article, death sentences are not evenly distributed throughout the Tennessee.
Only a few Tennessee counties have zealously pursued the death penalty while others have avoided it. Over the past 40 years, only 48 of Tennessee’s 95 counties (roughly one-half) have conducted trials resulting in death sentences, More significantly, only 28 counties, representing 64% of Tennessee’s population, have imposed sustained death sentences;139 since 2001, only eight counties, representing just 34% of Tennessee’s
Half of Tennessee’s death row comes from just one county: Shelby County.
Nationally, only 2% of U. S. counties in are responsible for the majority of the death row population and recent death sentences. (http://deathpenaltyinfor.org/twopercentsummary)
The penalty ensures justice for surviving family members of murder victims.
The current system can drag families through a lengthy process (average of 28 years in Tennessee) that holds out the promise of an execution, but often results in a different sentence. To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. The alternative sentences available in Tennessee begin as soon as victims’ families leave the courtroom and are served anonymously, outside the spotlight of the news cameras.
Services for Surviving Family Members of Murder Victims
The death penalty’s complicated process diverts millions of dollars and attention from the critical services that victims’ families need to help them heal. The death penalty is given in fewer than one percent of cases, yet it monopolizes a hugely disproportionate amount of the state’s resources that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services: services like specialized grief counseling, support groups, and financial assistance, including funds to ensure that every single person who is murdered in our state is able to be buried with dignity.
Solving Cold Cases
Currently, Tennessee spends millions dollars to pursue the death penalty in a small handful of cases while thousands of murders remain unsolved.
Instead of spending all these resources seeking the death penalty for a small number of individuals who are already safely behind bars, so many more families would benefit if these resources could be invested in hiring additional homicide detectives, expanding and improving crime labs, and eliminating the backlog on DNA testing of evidence, such as rape kits. This investment would go further towards solving the 250,000 other homicide cases that go unsolved every year in the U.S., than the pursuit of the death penalty in a very small number of cases.
“I know firsthand the trauma of losing a loved one to homicide, and I understand the impulse to seek the ultimate punishment. But I also recognize that public policy should not be based on our emotions at the worst moment of our lives.” – Davis Turner, whose brother, Thomas, was murdered in Nashville in 2009
“For surviving family members dealing with the horror and personal trauma of losing a loved one to murder, the death penalty only adds to their suffering by freezing them at a moment in time for years, forcing them to relive over and over the tragic circumstances of the murder with every new twist and turn in the legal process. This process never allows them the opportunity to painfully struggle to go on with their lives as my family was able to do.” – Charles Strobel, whose mother, Mary Catherine, was kidnapped and murdered in Nashville in 1986
“While we spend millions on the death penalty, there are murderers who remain on the streets. Our resources would be better spent solving cases like my mother’s and preventing murder in the first place.” – James Staub’s mother, Patricia, was murdered in 1985, when James was 12 years old. The killer was never found.
Executions are cheaper than life imprisonment.
In a 2004 Tennessee Comptroller’s Report, the Office of Research was unable to determine the comprehensive cost of Tennessee’s death penalty system because the data was not centralized. However, the report still concludes that overall, first-degree murder cases in which a notice to seek death is filed cost more than life without the possibility of parole cases.
- This report also found that death penalty trials cost an average of 48% more than the average cost of trials in which a life sentence is pursued.
- A New Jersey study found, between 1983 and 2005, taxpayers paid $253 million MORE for the death penalty system than for a system with life without parole as its maximum sentence. New Jersey had a death row of 10 inmates and executed no one in that time period. Tennessee has a death row of 63 and has executed six in the modern era.
- States like Maryland, Kansas, and North Carolina also found that the death penalty costs taxpayers millions more to maintain than life without parole.
Public opinion strongly supports the death penalty.
Public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in 40 years. According to the results of a Gallup poll conducted in October 2019, for the first time in Gallup’s 34-year trend, a majority of Americans say that life imprisonment without parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty is. The 60% to 36% advantage for life imprisonment indicates a dramatic shift over the past twenty years. During the 1908s and 1990s, consistent majorities thought the death penalty was the better option for murderers.
The death penalty system doesn’t make mistakes.
Since 1973, 185 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated and freed from death row when evidence of their innocence emerged, including three in Tennessee.
- In 2007, Michael McCormick was found not guilty in a new trial after spending nearly 20 years fighting his conviction and death sentence.
- Paul House served on Tennessee’s death row for nearly 23 years, though evidence (including DNA), indicated his wrongful conviction. All charges against him were dropped in 2009.
- Gussie Vann spent 17 years on Tennessee’s death row before all charges against him were dismissed after the court after held that he was entitled to a new trial because his defense attorneys failed to hire forensic experts to challenge the “inaccurate, exaggerated, and speculative medical testimony” offered by the state to make the case against him.
A recent report, The Innocence Epidemic, from The Death Penalty Information’s Center highlights more about how wrongful convictions occur. The data indicate that for every eight executions in the U.S. since 1973, one person has been exonerated.
The report also concludes that:
Moreover, the data show that most wrongful capital convictions and death sentences are not merely accidental or the result of unintentional errors. Instead, they are overwhelmingly the product of police or prosecutorial misconduct or the presentation of knowingly false testimony. More likely than not, they involve a combination of the two.
The death penalty deters crime.
Researchers continue to find flaws in studies claiming deterrence effect. A report released on April 18, 2012, by the National Research Council of the National Academies based on a review of more than three decades of research concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. The report stated:
“The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a speciFied amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.”(D. Nagin and J. Pepper, “Deterrence and the Death Penalty,” Committee on Law and Justice at the National Research Council, April 2012)
According to a 2009 survey of the former and present presidents of the nation’s top academic criminological societies appearing in Northwestern University’s School of Law Journal, 88% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide.
A 2008 poll by Death Penalty Information Center surveyed 500 U.S. police chiefs and found that when asked to name one area as “most important for reducing violent crime,” greater use of the death penalty ranked last among police chiefs with only 1% listing it as the best way to reduce violence.