Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Philip Workman Executed in Spite of Serious Doubt

At 1:38 am, Philip Workman was pronounced dead at Riverbend Correctional Facility in Nashville Tennessee. Nearly 100 vigilers stood silently with lighted candles awaiting the news for long minutes as there was no word from the prison until 1:45 - a full three quarters of an hour after the execution proceedings commenced. Below is TCASK's statement in response to the execution:

Workman’s Execution Proves Tennessee’s Death Penalty is Broken

Nashville: When the state of Tennessee executed Philip Workman at 1:00am this morning, it did more than kill a man; it destroyed any argument that Tennessee’s death penalty system can possibly be trusted to hand down fair and equitable justice. In the end, the legal wrangling came down to the question of whether or not the Sixth Circuit Court had the authority to overturn a temporary restraining order put in place by a Federal District Court judge. The federal courts never actually considered evidence suggesting that Workman was factually innocent of the murder of Memphis Police Officer Ronald Oliver.

Workman was convicted of the 1981 shooting of Lt. Oliver during a robbery of a Wendy’s restaurant. While Workman has never denied the robbery, evidence brought to light after his initial conviction strongly indicates he did not fire the shot which killed Lt. Oliver. According to an opinion by Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Drowota, if Workman did not fire the shot which killed Lt. Oliver, than he was not guilty of capital murder.

Only one witness, Harold Davis, claimed to have actually seen Workman shoot Lt. Oliver. But since the initial trial, Davis, who had a history of calling in false tips to police in the hopes of a reward, has confessed that he perjured himself and actually was not present at the crime scene. He has passed a polygraph examination verifying this testimony. Worse yet, the only expert forensics testimony on the record, that of Dr. Cecil Wecht, concludes that “to a degree of medical certainty” the bullet that killed Ronald Oliver could not have come from Workman’s gun, a .45 caliber pistol. Wecht’s testimony is based both on the size of the exit wound and on the fact that the bullet exited the body at all. Both are inconsistent with the type of gun and ammunition that Workman was using. This suggests that Oliver was killed by friendly fire. Five of the jurors from Workman’s trial, the original prosecuting attorney, and Lt. Oliver’s daughter have all called for clemency for Workman.

All this evidence should be disturbing to anyone concerned with fairness and justice, regardless of their position on the death penalty. But what should be even more disturbing is the fact that Workman went to his death without a substantive consideration of these facts. Tennesseans deserve to know that their state is taking every necessary precaution to guarantee that it does not take life unjustly. How can we afford to believe this anymore when we execute a man without considering the strong evidence that he did not commit the crime for which he was executed.

Proponents of the death penalty continually maintain that it represents justice. But armed robbery is not a capital offense. Across the country more than 120 people have been exonerated from the death rows of 25 states. Paul House currently sits on Tennessee’s death row for a crime that the United State Supreme Court ruled that no reasonable juror would find him guilty of if presented with all the evidence. And recent investigation has suggested that several innocent men have been executed. With the execution of Philip Workman, Tennessee destroyed ant reasonable argument that its death penalty is administered fairly. It is far past time that we stop all executions until we can guarantee that fairness, equity, and true justice prevail.

Reverend Stacy Rector, Executive Director

Alex Wiesendanger, Associate Director

Comments :
Amen. As I prayed about this last night I knew that Philip will receive God's grace - has received God's grace- and those in the system who put him to death will will hopefully sit with decisions and come to a different conclusion for the future.

Thanks for all you do in the name of peace with justice.
Hmm. If all the people Workman tried to kill, (Oliver, Stoddard and the two armed guards he tried to shoot with a pistol he smuggled into death row while being transported) had died, he would have qualified for mass murderer status. Same death penalty but even more victims.
When the state (and I mean ANY state) judicially kills a person despite evidence that this person could well have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed, then that state has itself become a murderer.
a few points regarding blaring inaccuracies in your statement:
1) Judge Campbell's temporary restraining order was appealable because, no matter the name he gave the order, it was in effect a stay of execution affecting what the Supreme Court has termed the substantial rights of the state and because Workman could not demonstrate, in the eyes of the Sixth Circuit and a majority of the Supreme Court, a likelihood of success on his claims that Tennessee's revised execution protocols are unconstitutional. This is evident because the protocols have changed very little, as acknowledged by Workman and his attorneys, and they have been upheld against every previous legal challenge - Abdur'Rahman, Alley, . . .

2) the federal courts have considered the evidence of Workman's "innocence." They simply don't view it as conclusive as Workman does. Read the Sixth Circuit's opinion from last Friday. The court talks at length about the problems with Harold Davis' alleged recantation, during which he also appeared to claim that he was not lying during his trial testimony. Twelve jurors viewed Davis' testimony and deemed it credible at the most relevant time. Since that time he has equivocated and contradicted himself. The law affords great deference to a jury's findings of fact - that is the point of the jury system.

3) the issue of whether or not Workman fired the actual shot is of questionable relevance. According to Justice Drowota, if Workman did not actually fire the fatal shot then, under Tennessee law at that time, he might not have been eligible for the death sentence he recieved. First, as discussed in the Sixth Circuit's opinion, Workman testified that he shot Officer Oliver. Second, in engaging one or more officers in a gunfight, Workman clearly had the requisite intent to kill, which is all that the Constitution requires when someone dies in the course of a felony (like an armed robbery). If I walked into a Wendy's today and the same chain of events took place, I would be eligible for capital punishment. Workman was not innocenct in the sense that he was morally and actually culpable for the death of Officer Oliver. Armed robbery is a capital offense when occasioned by the death of someone. In the end, the state courts of Tennessee heard Dr. Wecht's testimony and accorded it the weight they felt it deserved. Workman's own admission that he shot Officer Oliver is simply too damning.

3) Paul House has not been declared innocent. The Supreme Court expressly refused to declare the evidence of his innocence sufficient to state a claim of "actual innocence." All the Court's holding means is that House has offered sufficient evidence of his innocence such that denying him the opportunity to present federal habeas claims which are otherwise barred from review might result in a miscarriage of justice. There is still, as acknowledged by even the majority in House, compelling circumstantial evidence of House's guilt. House will be able to present all of his claims in federal court and a judge will be able to decide if House's rights were violated at trial. If so, he will be awarded a new trial, or sentencing, at which he may present the evidence of his innocence before the fact-finder our system entrusts with this responsibility - the jury.

4) Philip Workman received, even in this day of decades long appeals in capital cases, an extraordinary amount of process. His conviction was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. He twice availed himself of Tennessee's state post-conviction procedures and appealed those cases all the way to the Supreme Court. He pursued habeas corpus and coram nobis relief in Tennessee courts and had evidentiary hearings and appeals in each of those instances. He pursued habeas corpus relief in the federal courts, once again appealing all the way to the Supreme Court. He twice asked the appellage courts for permission to file second habeas petitions. He filed another habeas petition without asking the appellate court. Countless state and federal judges considered his various actions. While you may not agree with how all of these judges handled his myriad cases, at some point you must accept that the law did not favor Philip Workman. If the Supreme Court got it right with House, why weren't they right each time they rejected Workman's appeals? These judges are mostly jurists of character, intelligence, and integrity who diligently seek to ensure that the law is applied correctly. No judge wants to see an innocent man executed, and our system provides more checks than it ever has to ensure that such does not occur. A novice should not impugn the moral character of such judges with headlines like "Sixth Circuit Ignores Expert Opinion and Common Decency." Indeed, it is intellectually dishonest to continually reference what the Supreme Court said in House, in a 5-4 majority by the way, while denigrating or failing to mention that a majority of that same court did not wish to even review Workman's claims. You either believe in what the Supreme Court does or you do not. You should not cherrypick whatever is convenient for the point you are trying to make.

Yours is an advocacy organization with a noble goal. There are many compelling reasons to favor abolishing the death penalty. To my mind, its just wrong for the state to kill someone. However, you should not presume to say that every execution is legally wrong based on only your own uninformed views and whatever you are spoon- fed by defense attorneys.
Wow "Anonymous" that was quite the attack on our comments there. But I appreciate the fact that you expressed yourself respectfully, generally, and I'm happy to dialogue with you regarding our comments.

1) If you refer to the dissenting opinion when the 6th Circuit panel voted to overturn Campbell's stay, the dissent followed the line of reasoning that I set out in the blog, and those same arguments failed in the en banc hearing by only one vote. Clearly they had some merit.

2)Federal Courts have been asked to look at claims of Workman's innocence but they have not put forward a substantive review of them, instead testing whether he would meet certain standards etc. It was sad that a man went to his death without a definitive answer on the simple questions of fact, instead of on procedural questions.

3) If you read the blog that you're commenting on, you will find that I never said that Paul House has been declared innocent by the Supreme Court. But if you read the opinion they do declare that "viewing the record as whole no reasonable juror would lack a reasonable doubt," if a reasonable doubt exists, the verdict is not guilty. And the fact that some, in your words, "circumstantial evidence" exists should not be enough to condemn a man to death when DNA evidence as well as the testimony of a number of witnesses points to someone else.
Of course we should defer to the jury's finding of fact when possible, but in both the House and Workman cases, the jury did not get to hear all the evidence, and in fact heard a lot of false evidence. Witness the fact that five of the jurors in the Workman case have signed affidavits indicating that they would not have voted for death for Workman had they known all the facts available today. It's unfair that those jurors now have a death they would not have agreed to hanging aroudn their shoulders.

4)No one is denying that Workman's case went through a huge number of appeals. It obviously did. And I would never claim to be a legal expert. But what should be clear to everyone is that the capital appellate review is based on procedure, not fairness. When the chief medical examiner and the key prosecution witness that put a man on death row lie (as they did in this case) fairness would indicate that we should set a new trial and look at all the evidence again. This never happened in Philip Workman's case, and that's an issue that we should all keep in mind when people refer to all the reviews that capital defendents receive, we need to remember that the legal process does not look at things the same way a fair minded citizen would. There are a myriad of legal bars and blocks. The ABA recently found that Tennessee has inadequate avenues for addressing new factual claims of innocence. Maybe that's why Paul House is still sitting on death row.

I have never stated that every execution is legally wrong (please try to refrain from mischaracterizing my statements). Sadly the state does possess the legal right to execute people. The overall point that should become clear again and again is that the legalistic gymnastics surrounding executions are not focused on the key questions of justice or fairness in our capital punishment system. Is it fair that black men in Memphis have been sentenced by all white juries? Of course not! Is it legal? As long as the prosecutor can produce a "race-neutral" reason, yes. Is it legal to deny a person on death row the right to have a full and fair hearing on new evidence of their factual innocence? No, just ask Paul House's mother. Is it legal? All to often, yes! I apologize if anything in my post was unclear, and it should be obvious that I have only a lay understanding of the legal system. However, what I do know is that Tennessee's death penalty system does not meet any decent standard of fairness and justice. There are many moral and ethical people involved, but they are often constrained by the structures of the legal system. Because of that, even fair people can be forced to act in an unfair way. And I think that I can certainly agree with some decisions that the Supreme Court makes and disagree with others. Just as you can say that I am right to oppose capital punishment but wrong in some of my other assessments.

I realize that probably no one has read the entirety of this post, but I appreciate the opportunity for dialogue. I hope that we can all move away from a system that claims a "right" to take human life, under any guise.

I am a distant cousin of phillips, Our family can only pray for his loved ones and for him to be in a better place. susan workman
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