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Abolish the Death Penalty

April 18, 2011

United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in the 1972 decision Furman v Georgia that a sentence that is degrading to human dignity, applied in an obviously arbitrary fashion and clearly rejected throughout society can be found to be cruel and unusual punishment. That describes capital punishment today.

Recent findings of prosecutorial misconduct and grave errors in death penalty cases confirm Brennan’s suggestion that capital punishment is indeed cruel and unusual. Tennessee should abolish the death penalty whether there’s a shortage of the key ingredient to the lethal injection chemical mix or not.

The Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty heard testimony that given the budget in 2009, the process is a luxury for the state. The Commission also heard testimony that there exist too many holes in the system that exposes the accused to significant horrible risks. The risk for society – indeed a real possibility – is that innocent people are being executed.

There are significant findings that point to this. Among them:

Mother Jones magazine reported on the distressing case of John Thompson, a former inmate on Louisiana’s death row. Thompson was exonerated after sitting on death row for 14 years. His lawyers uncovered evidence of prosecutorial misconduct from the office of former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., a man so enraptured with the death penalty that he kept a model of an electric chair on his desk. That morbid toy was decorated with the pictures of death row inmates, Thompson being one.

The Innocence Project, an organization created to exonerate those wrongly accused and incarcerated by the state, investigated Connick’s tenure. They found that one out of every four men sentenced to death were “convicted after evidence that would have cast doubt on their guilt was withheld at trial.” The organization has used DNA evidence to exonerate others – seventeen to date.

Thompson avoided paying the ultimate price only through the intercession of the Innocence Project. Cameron Todd Willingham wasn’t so lucky. The state of Texas sentenced Willingham to death for the murder of his three daughters in a fire he was accused to have set himself. Later, however, the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed the case and found that the evidence could not support the charge of arson against Willingham. There exists the possibility, beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt, that Texas executed an innocent man.

We are certain that Tennessee’s law enforcement agents and prosecutors mostly act in good faith. But it’s reasonable to conclude that such incidents could happen here. In spite of the evidence, in spite of the nationwide trend toward death penalty repeal, Tennessee’s legislators are considering bills that actually reduce the ability of death row inmates to obtain adequate legal aid.

Given the dire economic circumstances, where we can’t afford to sustain a proper teaching force, given circumstances where there is evidence substantial numbers of men are jailed on faulty evidence, given the fact we can’t even obtain the basic amounts of chemicals for lethal injections. Tennessee should simply abolish the death penalty.

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