TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT TENNESSEE’S DEATH PENALTY

1. There are no rich people on death row

  • 85-90% of people on death row were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them at trial. They are assigned public defenders with much higher caseloads and fewer resources than private law firms.
  • Public Defender’s offices in both Nashville and Memphis have reported chronic underfunding and understaffing, to the point of not being able to take on a new case (Memphis Commercial Appeal and TBA).

2. There are racial biases in the system

  • A study of capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981 to 2000 found that defendants with white victims were 3.15 to 75 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants with black victims (ABA report, p 284).
  • More than 1 in 4 black inmates condemned to death in Tennessee from 1977 to 2001 were sentenced by all-white juries (Amnesty, p 40).

3. There is too little oversight and accountability for judges and lawyers in capital cases

  • A 2007 study by the American Bar Association found that the TN death penalty system falls short on 10 key points, including Inadequate Procedures to Address Innocence Claims, Lack of Meaningful Proportionality Review, and Failure to Preserve DNA Evidence in Capital Trials. These issues remain unresolved today (ABA report).
  • A prosecutor in Shelby County has been publicly reprimanded by the TN Supreme Court for withholding evidence in a capital trial, and yet faces no disciplinary consequences from the DA’s office (Memphis Flyer).

4. Innocent people have been sentenced to death in TN

  • Since 1977, 41 death sentences or capital convictions in Tennessee have been vacated or reversed on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. This represents more than 20% of Tennessee death cases. If we include other problems in addition to ineffective assistance of counsel, courts have found reversible error in well over half of all Tennessee death cases.

 5. Death sentences are more expensive than life sentences

  • According to a 2004 study by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, death penalty trials in TN cost an average of 48 percent more than the cost of trials in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment.

6. The death penalty is not an effective deterrent

  • 88% of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a greater deterrent to homicide than long term imprisonment (Radelet and Lacock).
  • The murder rate in death penalty states is consistently higher than the murder rate in non-death penalty states (Death Penalty Information Center).

7. There are ongoing legal challenges to Tennessee’s execution protocol

  • In 2011, Tennessee was forced to hand over its supply of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs in the three-drug lethal injection protocol, because of the way it was acquired (New York Times).
  • In 2013, Tennessee switched to a new one-drug protocol (pentobarbital). But the European manufacturers of this drug have banned its use for state execution (The Tennessean).
  • Last year, Tennessee legislators passed a law that allows compounding pharmacies to mix drugs without a prescription (NPR). This would permit the state to order execution drugs directly from a compounding pharmacy in Tennessee, bypassing EU trade restrictions.
  • They also amended a law guaranteeing confidentiality to the suppliers of execution drugs (TCA Section 10-7-504(h)(1)).  This eliminates the public’s right to know who makes the drugs that kill people in our name.  A lawsuit is still pending on whether the new execution protocol is compatible with the US and TN constitutions.
  • Meanwhile, Tennessee passed a law to bring back the electric chair, in case lethal injection drugs are unavailable.  This law is also being challenged in the courts (The Tennessean).

8. Execution does not address the harm of murder

  • Supporters of the death penalty often argue that murder victims’ families need execution to find closure. But the national organization, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, rejects the promise of closure through execution. They support a policy of “Prevention, Not Execution” to stop the cycle of violence.
  • Prisoners on death row have children, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends. When a prisoner is executed, these people suffer an irreplaceable loss, too (McBride).

 9. Conservatives are also Concerned About the Death Penalty

  • Common concerns include the insupportable cost of the death penalty, the risk of executing innocent people, a concern for the impact of death penalty trials on victim’s families, and contradictions between the belief in small government and/or the right to life and the practice of state killing (Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty).

10. Tennessee has a strong abolitionist history

  • We are the only former Confederate state to have abolished capital punishment for murder (from 1915-1919), and were 1 vote short of full abolition in 1965 (Vandiver and Sayward).
  • We were the last state in the South to resume executions after capital punishment was suspended across the US from 1972-1976.

Learn more about Tennessee’s death penalty at our Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty, in Nashville on Sept 13!

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