Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Blown Out of the Water

I just got back into the office from a mid-day trip to the legislature with the above group of high school anti-death penalty activists. New members of the legislature are often the most ready and willing to hear from their constituents, and, with Republican control of the Senate, we knew that we needed to start talking to some of the new Republican legislators about the failings of the death penalty system. So a student contingent, including TCASK board reps Kathryn Lea and Lillian Siman, visited newly minted Senator Jack Johnson this afternoon to discuss the moratorium effort and the problems inherent in Tennessee's death penalty system.

These kids are awesome! Luke Lea, all of 15 years old, quoted Sandra Day O'Connor verbatim and unprompted. Jack Lindsay laid out as eloquently as I could have the rationale for needing a moratorium. Kathryn used the Senator's own pro-life position to passionately argue against the death penalty. The group, clearly, impressed the Senator - I mean, they impressed me and I've been working with them for a year!

Legislators love meeting with students. It's a photo op, and they get to talk about how they support our children and our future, etc. They expect students to say, "I think the death penalty is mean." But when teenagers care enough about an issue to come to the capitol and then eloquently and insightfully argue the merits of a public policy, it blows them away. I don't know what TCASK would do without our students!

Oh, and the outcome? The Senator said he was "110% in support of a study." Not too shabby.

(There was some celebration back in the TCASK office)

Comments :
Makes me proud to know that this country has young people that really care about the issues and are willing to step out and demonstrate their beliefs!! Bravo for this group for a job well done.
Starr: Death-penalty cases merit better news coverage

By Shandra West
First Amendment Center intern
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In Kenneth Starr's view, the press doesn’t provide enough coverage of the death penalty, whether it be of individual capital cases and efforts to reform the system.

The dean of Pepperdine University Law School expressed his views during a panel discussion, “The Press, the Public and the Death Penalty,” hosted Jan. 26 by the First Amendment Center.

Starr, well-known for his work as Whitewater special prosecutor, in recent years has done pro bono work for Kirkland & Ellis on death-penalty cases.

Starr and the other members of the panel — Judge Gilbert Merritt of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Bradley A. McLean of the Tennessee Justice Project — agreed that the press could do a better job covering death-penalty cases, including new efforts to use DNA testing to determine guilt or innocence in capital cases.

The panelists said that often when the press doesn't cover individual cases, it cites the public's lack of interest in such reporting. However, the panelists said, the press has an obligation to report on capital punishment and the public should pay attention.

The news media often "don't think that the public is interested in the intricacies of the cases," Merritt said.

The depth of the reporting was also criticized by McLean, a Nashville attorney.

“I’ve noticed in Tennessee, there has been a lower level of investigative reporting," he said. "The reporters are on the case for that day.”

Starr said certain decisions regarding the death penalty get little — or unequal — attention from the press. For instance, he said, when pleas for clemency are denied, those decisions get no coverage.

“The press does a wonderful job when it comes to exonerations, but it’s the next step that is tough for the press,” Starr said. That “next step” is reporting on cases in which inmates are not exonerated but still may be on death row although innocent.

Starr said he did not believe the death penalty should be abolished because there are certain crimes that are so bad that death is society's only fitting response. He said, however, that the legal procedures and administration of capital punishment needed to be reformed.

“Society has the right to self defense, but it should be limited,” Starr said.

The panelists said issues in addition to DNA testing that need to be addressed in debates over the death penalty and reform include:

Geographical inconsistencies within individual states concerning how the death penalty is applied. Some counties seek the death penalty for capital crimes, while others do not.

Cost. McLean, who supports abolishing the death penalty, said that if cost were discussed openly, death-penalty reform would be taken more seriously by politicians and the public.

Execution methods. Some of the 38 states that have the death penalty use lethal injection. But questions have been raised by those urging reform as to whether or not this type of execution is cruel and unusual punishment. Starr said he thought “a more humane way” than injection should be used.

Starr, who also served as judge for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, said newspaper editorial boards should put forth more effort in trying to reform the system. He said editorial boards needed to “become thoughtful instruments of reform.”

The panel was moderated by Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, and co-moderated by Larry Bridgesmith, who heads the Institute for Conflict Resolution at Lipscomb University. The audience included a group of the Freedom Forum's Chips Quinn Scholars, Lipscomb and Vanderbilt University students and Vanderbilt’s Retired Learning participants.

Shandra West is a senior at Belmont University in Nashville, majoring in communication.
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