The Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee Considers Final Report: Committee Members Urge Action

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
February 18, 2009 12:00 am

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Press Conference: Thursday, February 19, following Study Committee Meeting Legislative Plaza Room 31

Nashville, TN – Following the last meeting of the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee on Thursday, February 19, several members of the Committee will hold a press conference in Room 31 to urge both the legislature and Governor to take further action. Committee members including Charles Strobel, Bill Redick, Richard McGee, Isaiah “Skip” Gant, Sita Diehl, and Lorna McClusky urge the Tennessee General Assembly to adopt legislative initiatives being introduced and to pursue further study on those issues not fully addressed by the Committee.

“During my service on this Committee, I have heard no evidence supporting the fairness or accuracy of the current death penalty system in Tennessee,” says Charles Strobel, Committee member representing Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. “If the death penalty system was on trial, it would be found guilty of being grossly unfair and risking the execution of an innocent person. Our findings demand further scrutiny.”

Like similar death penalty study committees in states such as Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland, the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, created in 2007 by SB1911/HB 2162, was to “study capital punishment in the state of Tennessee and to make recommendations designed to make capital punishment in Tennessee uniform in its application and administration so that the capital process is free from bias and error.” In both New Jersey and Maryland, state commissions found their death penalty systems so broken and rife with error that repeal of the death penalty was recommended. In New Jersey, the death penalty was abolished on December 17, 2007, and repeal legislation is currently moving in Maryland’s legislature.

During the 14-month life of the Tennessee Study Committee, Committee members received testimony from local and national experts on the administration of the death penalty in Tennessee. Nashville attorney and author of Tennessee’s death penalty statute, David Raybin, testified in October 2007, that Tennessee’s death penalty was a “luxury” item in the state budget, and the Comptroller’s office admitted that there was no centralized way of tracking the true costs of the death penalty to Tennesseans. Testimony concerning lack of adequate defense counsel for those charged with capital crimes, lack of DNA preservation, lack of recorded interrogations, the risk of executing the innocent, as well as the length of the appeals process were received by the Committee.

The Study Committee represented a wide array of constituencies in Tennessee including both representatives from defense and prosecutorial associations, murder victims’ families organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Tennessee Bar Association, as well as two members appointed by the Governor. Senator Doug Jackson and Representative Kent Coleman co-chaired the Committee while other legislative members included Senator Dewayne Bunch and Representative Bill Dunn.

The Committee voted in favor of some recommendations to the General Assembly including the creation of an independent commission to oversee capital defense services in Tennessee to ensure that attorneys representing those charged with capital murder are competent, trained, monitored, and compensated adequately (SB 1679). Other recommendations include the recording of custodial interrogations by law enforcement (SB 0261) and a policy of open file discovery (SB 1402).

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