Unfair is an Understatement

Tennessee has only executed three people in the past forty years, and yet, this month two executions are pending. Daryl Holton is scheduled to be executed on September 12th and E.J. Harbison on September 26th. Holton’s case, having been more recent and involving the deaths of his four children, is one with which many people are familiar. However, E.J. Harbison’s case is less well known as his conviction occurred in 1983.

The case of E.J. Harbison is very problematic, involving a variety of issues such as ineffective counsel, racial bias, and arbitrary sentencing. The bottom line is that in 1983, Harbison a poor, borderline mentally retarded, African-American man with no prior criminal record was convicted by an all white jury in the murder of Edith Russell, an elderly white woman, in a botched robbery occurring in Chattanooga.

Although the state claimed that the murder was premeditated, no weapons were brought to the home, and the woman was killed with a vase after she surprised the burglars. While Harbison was sentenced to death after confessing when police threatened to place his girlfriend’s children in foster care, his co-defendant, David Schreane–whose criminal history included armed robbery and multiple burglaries–accepted a plea and served only six years.

To make matters worse, police records, first requested before the trial, were not turned over to Harbison until 1997. In those files,counsel discovered that an eyewitness placed David Schreane across the street from the victim’s house near the time of the crime and did not identify Harbison as the person with Schreane. Schreane himself, first told police that a different person was with him. The file showed substantial involvement by another man, Ray Harrison, seen around the victim’s house at the time of the crime. However, Harbison’s direct appeal attorney also represented Harrison concerning this crime, presenting an obvious conflict of interest. The police extradited Harrison to Florida when Schreane implicated Harbison.

Regardless of how one feels about the death penalty, such dramatic unfairness and arbitrariness should not be acceptable to anyone. How does David Schreane, by all accounts a career criminal first arrested by police, end up serving six years and E.J. Harbison, a man with no prior criminal record, end up sentenced to die? Does such an outcome make us safer? Does it serve the needs of the victims’ family? Is it justice?

No one knows exactly what happened as the tragic murder of Edith Russell occurred or exactly who was involved. How is justice served by giving one man six years and another death? Never mind that E.J. Harbison is a black man sentenced by an all white jury in the South. Is that fair?

I haven’t even discussed the horrific violence and abuse E.J. suffered throughout his life which the jury never heard about…mitigating evidence which might have kept him from receiving the death sentence.

A hearing will be held next week at which Harbison’s lawyers will argue that lethal injection is a violation of his 8th amendment rights prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The scheduled execution on Sept. 26 will depend, in part, on the outcome of that hearing. Please continue to check our website and blog for updates and actions to take. TCASK will be leading an effort to ask Governor Bredesen to grant clemency to E.J. Harbison if the courts will not intervene. The citizens of Tennessee cannot allow such a travesty of justice to occur in our name.

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