Why Does Colin Dayan Support This Initiative?

Dr. Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University.  She is the author of The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011) and The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007), as well as many other books, articles, and op-eds.

Dr. Dayan writes:

How cruel and unusual is the practice of humane and sanitized death? In Baze v. Rees (2008), the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s method of lethal injection. It rejected the claim that the effects of the 3-drug protocol qualified as cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. Even though the paralyzing drug pancuronium bromide leaves an improperly sedated inmate unable to move or cry out, but conscious and in excruciating pain, the Court ruled that the procedure is more humane, more dignified than others. In other words, it is less disturbing to witnesses. 

The Tennessee Department of Correction has announced that only pentobarbital will be used to execute death row inmates despite a shortage of the drug.  In other words, our state will use the single-drug lethal injection method instead of the three-drug method it has used in the past. But since the drug is in short supply individual pharmacies can concoct recipes to make it, increasing the risk of an agonizing, degrading death.

The “painlessness” of lethal injection depends on an excessive saturation of the body with chemicals.  This “ethics of care” always remains what Sister Helen Prejean once called “an elaborate ruse.”  The familiar surround of a clinic, as I once wrote in “The Blue Room in Florence,” “offers the guarantee that this body-altering penetration has the prestige of a healing process.” But the odor of death cannot be redeemed.

The process of “humane” killing has unlimited resources at its disposal: to benumb, paralyze, and exterminate.  We remain the only country in the so-called “civilized” world that practices execution, though nineteen states do not have an enforceable death penalty statute. When will Tennessee join them and stop “tinkering with the machinery of death,” in the words of Justice Harry Blackmun?

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

And join us for a Death Penalty Teach-In on Monday, January 27 at 5:30pm in Vanderbilt’s Alumni Hall 201!

Why does Nicholas Logan support this initiative?

Nicholas Logan is an undergraduate student of philosophy at Vanderbilt University.  Nicholas writes:

Punishments like the death penalty and life-without-parole sentences attribute an essence to the offender: that they are permanently unworthy of being a part of our collective society.  In existentialist terms, these forms of punitive justice deny the possibility of an open future to someone who has committed a crime by denying their existential freedom to change.  If man is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future,” then forms of punishment like permanent incarceration and state-sanctioned death, which deny such future-oriented freedom, are clearly not adequate responses to crime. Permanent incarceration involves entrusting the state and its representatives with endless dominion over the body and freedom of the prisoner. The death penalty denies a convicted criminal an opportunity to change or to make amends for what they have done.

But the harm of extreme punishment goes beyond the individual prisoner; it also affects the existential freedom of the public.  As Lewis Gordon outlines in his work, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, if man is constantly “in the making,” we act in bad faith whenever we attribute an essence or nature to someone because it denies one’s existential freedom.  When we wordlessly live under a legal system that sanctions the death penalty and life-without-parole prison sentences, we will a world in which it is okay to deny an open future to others and ourselves. Further, we allow ourselves to live under a type of power relationship in which we can deny our responsibility to not only determine what is ethical, but also how to respond to that which is said to be unethical.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

Why does Richard Goode support this initiative?

Richard Goode is Professor of History at Lipscomb University and coordinator of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) program, which offers Lipscomb courses at Nashville area prisons and at Room in the Inn. He is the author, with Will Campbell, of And the Criminals with Him (2012)  and Crashing the Idols (2010).

Dr. Goode writes:

Over the last 35 years we’ve often made the death penalty one of our favorite, polarizing disputes. Candidates for elected office, for example, make capital punishment a campaign pledge, promising to get people what they’re due (retribution and/or revenge). Criminal Justice experts analyze it as a public policy (i.e., whether it effectively deters future offenses). Such polemics can impoverish our communities by masking the real costs of executions. When it comes to capital punishment, we’re not talking about some “issue.” A crime has shattered lives and community relations as they ought to be. No matter how severe and well-intentioned our punitive reprisal, however, we can neither erase the pain and loss, nor do some final just thing to delete the offense.

Community is found in our ongoing response to the offense, rather than on some once-for-all, ultimate payback inflicted on the offender. Insofar as both the victim and the offender are our siblings, our challenge is to live beyond retribution, and love beyond revenge. Our commitment is to restore right relationships after the horrendous offense. Toward that end, we’re not called to settle the score—as if our vengeful might could return life to some prelapsarian state. We’re called to be reconciled—to incarnate the reconciliation that has already restored right relationships.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

 

Why Does Larry May Support This Initiative?

Larry May is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Law, and Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.  He is the author of many books, including After War Ends (2012), Global Justice and Due Process (2011), and Genocide: A Normative Account (2010).

 Dr. May writes:

One can be opposed to the death penalty for many good moral reasons that are grounded in principle, such as the principle that the right to life must be respected, or that the state should never intentionally kill one of its own citizens.  But often today people express a different type of reason for why they are opposed to the death penalty, namely, a concern that the institutions responsible for the death penalty in America cannot be trusted to make sure that only those who deserve to die are the one’s who are executed.  This is a contingent objection to the death penalty in its current form and as it is currently administered and it is the position I also support. I don’t see the criminal justice institutions in the United States reforming themselves, or being reformed, sufficiently in the foreseeable future to make it likely that these institutions would guarantee that only those who deserved to die are the ones who are executed.

Specifically three facts are worth mention: 1) the current tendency for prosecutors to engage in wrongdoing so as to get a conviction and to thereby enhance their own prospects of attaining higher political office within their states [See Larry May, “Missouri’s Death Row Cases,” Journal of the Missouri Bar, March/April 2003, pp. 72-79];  2) the likelihood that the defense attorney representing the accused will not be as skilled, or have anything like the same resources, as those of the prosecutor;  and 3) the fact that prosecutors often react to certain kinds of killing in a visceral way, rather than in a reasoned way. Such facts have caused me and many others to lose faith in the promise that only those who deserve to die will be executed. And this is also a reason to have a moratorium on the administration of the death penalty.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

Why Does Michelle Brown Support This Initiative?

Dr. Michelle Brown is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  She is the author of The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle (2009), Empathy and Punishment (2012) as well as other books and articles in the field of critical criminology.

Dr. Brown writes:

As a criminologist, I have spent a lot of time examining the inescapable problems of capital punishment, ranging from its failure to deter crime to problems of racial disparity and inadequate due process.  One of the more powerful emotional claims for capital punishment has been that executions are necessary for victims and their loved ones to achieve closure.  In fact, an emergent wave of social science research on the families of victims in capital cases points instead to their long-term social, psychological, and spiritual needs.  As it turns out, experiences of isolation, alienation, invisibility, grief, and powerlessness are shared among families of the victim and the condemned.  In the world of capital punishment, victims, perpetrators, and their loved ones bleed together.

Such work encourages us to move beyond the myth of closure often presented in the media and law, one where criminal justice procedure – prosecution, conviction, and punishment – results in “closure” with victims then expected to “move on.”  Rather, families talk instead of closure as a life-long, ongoing process – a work of memory – with complex needs, a process that capital punishment often exacerbates in its one-off assumptions of finality. Often overlooked in capital punishment debates yet central to the acknowledgment of victims is the role of the community in responding to these needs, an obligation central to restorative and transformative justice. Communities can do a better job of addressing the pain, grief, and life-long needs of others than simply pursuing death.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

Why Does Emilie Townes Support This Initiative?

Emilie M. Townes is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

She is the author of several books, including the groundbreaking work, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2006).  She is an ordained American Baptist clergywoman, a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the current president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion.

Dr. Townes writes:

I am not a pacifist.  I do not have that kind of emotional stamina but I abhor violence and try to live my life and convictions by respecting others and the creation in which we all have our being. Things like war are a signal that we have failed to respect one another’s humanity and have resorted to a brutal way to solve our differences.  When it comes to taking another life, I cannot find any emotional or religious justification that allows me to support the death penalty—particularly when its administration is so flawed in this country and in the state of Tennessee.  Until we eradicate the racial and economic bias in applying the death penalty and the execution of innocent people, we should not be a nation or a state that use the death penalty as a form of punishment—it is, in fact, a form of injustice.  I take seriously the admonition that “Thou shalt not kill,” and that God desires repentance from us and not vengeance.  Humanity must find a better way to deal with our moral failures.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

Why Does Dr. Leigh Johnson Support This Initiative?

Dr. Leigh Johnson teaches Philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis.  This is what she had to say about the initiative to stop executions in Tennessee on her blog, ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore:

As a philosopher, I can understand, even if not sympathize with, the fact that many still believe the death penalty to be just another form of punishment, differing from other legal penalties in degree but not in kind.  I believe the difference is a difference in kind, and that any Court or any State that exercises its authority in this way is the weaker for it.  Even if I could find some way to relieve my moral objections to capital punishment, I would still find it impossible to sanction its current application and practice. There is an ever-widening gulf that separates those with access to adequate legal counsel from those without it, those who the court system considers without prejudice and those who it exercises prejudice against, offenders who we treat as if they can be reformed and offenders who we treat as if they are best discarded.  Until that gulf is eliminated, justice and fairness remain but a charade.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.