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Tuesday, July 31, 2007


What's an el tee ee?

In organizing and activism talk it is not uncommon to come across acronyms or abbreviations for just about everything. I admit, I am a fan of these, so the next time you hear me say something along the lines of "hey, it would be great if we could generate a el tee ee, or LTE," you'll know that I am referring to a Letter to the Editor. Or, you can slap me upside the head and insist that I state their respective full names.

Tim McDonald, a dedicated TCASK activist and frequent LTE writer, had a great one published in the Jackson Sun in response to the Juan Melendez article:

America not a nation of equals under the law

Recently, Juan Melendez came to Jackson to tell us of his 18 years on death row as an innocent man. Today, the pope asks us to spare Troy Anthony Davis, another likely innocent man soon to be executed. Columnist Leonard Pitts says a majority of us feel innocent people are executed and asks why we, a logical people, do nothing about it.

I do not feel logic has anything to do with this. It is in our nature; we the American majority. For centuries, we killed Native Americans with bullets or smallpox-infested blankets. For centuries, we whipped, lynched or burned alive African Americans. All this was done in the name of Manifest Destiny, our European right to possess and exploit this land we call the United States of America. In this process, our ancestors lost their Christian values. Empathy, compassion and justice for all gave way to greed and a feeling of social superiority by the majority.

Look to our prison system, our slums, our death row. All these people are our fellow Americans, but we have no compassion for them, even when they are innocent of wrongdoing. Perhaps we hate them because they remind us of our past, of who we are. They stand as reminders of the dark side to American prosperity, to the betrayal of the "equality concept" of the Constitution.

America is not a nation of equals. Just ask Juan Melendez or any of the other millions who have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system.

Tim McDonald


Great work Tim! It's always very important to write letters to the editor in response to articles about the death penalty because legislators truly read that section to understand the pulse of their constituency.

Monday, July 30, 2007


Arthur T. "A.C." Copeland

When I was first exposed to Arthur T. "A.C." Copeland's case I felt as if I was reading a script right out of television's Law and Order. It is a case filled with bounties, drugs, rape, and enough twists and turns to make your head spin. While the case itself is convoluted, there were some major themes that I was able to discern--most important is that there is a very good chance Arthur Copeland did not commit the crime he was accused of in 1998. Copeland was sentenced to death row in 2000 and was there until the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the sentencing this past May and he received a new trial date on June 29th. Just recently, he received his bail, set at $400,000 in the Blount County Circuit Court--the article can be found HERE.

TCASK is currently putting together a case summary (similar to others on our website) to give the public a concise summary of what has transpired. Check back soon for that summary.

One can assume that because the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the sentencing that there are some major issues with this case that warrant close examination and as usual, are indicative of the kind of death penalty system this state has.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Visitation and Memorial Service for Harmon Wray

Visitation will be Friday evening, July 27 at Edgehill UMC (15th and Edgehill Ave.) from 6pm to 8pm. The Memorial Service will be Saturday morning, July 28 at 10 a.m. at Belmont UMC.

The Tennessean had a terrific article on Harmon Wray today which can be found HERE.

The Harmon Wray Fund has been set up at Edgehill United Methodist Church which will be used to continue Harmon's prison ministry life work. Please write checks to Edgehill United Methodist Church noting that the gift is for The Harmon Wray Fund and send it to:

Edgehill United Methodist Church
The Harmon Wray Fund
PO Box 128258
Nashville, TN 37212

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The Passing of an Abolitionist

When Tennessee was preparing to execute Sedley Alley, I called Harmon Wray to ask him to speak at the beginning of our vigil, to set the tone, and recommission us in our work to end executions. When the state carried out the execution, and people in the TCASK family were grieving, I called Harmon again to seek his guidance in preparing a service of remembrance. Harmon, in his usual gentle voice, mentioned that, as people of faith, including a confessional understanding would be important.

On Sunday night, a number of friends gathered to have dinner and celebrate the wonderful two years that I've had here with TCASK. Harmon, with his usual cool, strolled in about an hour late, and told me to keep the copy of his latest book as a gift. On Monday morning, Harmon suffered a stroke. He had a second massive stroke later in the day, and this afternoon he will be taken off life support and his organs will be donated to help others.

So, in Harmon's spirit, I have to make a confession again: at this time I am thinking of myself; I am grieving. If I could truly think of Harmon, the faith that he and I shared would propel me to rejoice, because if anyone is going to Heaven, then Harmon Wray is headed there now. Harmon, who was a part of the Memphis Sanitation Workers' strike in 1968, Harmon who has visited those in prison and sought to transform our criminal justice system into one focused on healing and restoration for victims and offenders, Harmon who was filled with a joy, love, passion for justice, and wry Southern wit that touched everything and everyone around him. But I am grieving, because, while I know that Harmon will soon be rabble rousing with Jesus, I also know that my world will be so much more empty without him. I know that I will no longer have a spiritual mentor in the restorative justice movement to turn to. I know that his long time partner Judy Parks, and his wonderful mother Celeste (one of the core members of the Memphis TCASK chapter) will be without their loved one. And so, as I prayed and held Harmon's inert hand in the hospital room this morning, I wept, feeling the loss to those of us still on earth even as Harmon ascends to meet his heavenly Father, whom he has followed with such passion, grace, and love for so many years.

On Sunday, Karan Simpson took this wonderful picture of Harmon, perhaps the last recorded image of him. Harmon, we will miss you. God bless.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


6445 days

6445 days…the approximate amount of time that Juan Melendez spent on Florida’s death row for a crime that he did not commit. Take a second and soak that in. How would you feel if you were in jail or prison for something you didn’t do? How would you feel after a day, a week, a month? I can tell you that I would be as ornery as a crocodile.

Juan had a grand total of 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day stolen away from his life and he was in Jackson, Tennessee this past weekend to tell folks about it. We also had a great article kicking off our Jackson campaign which can be found HERE, and which I will talk about after I talk about Juan.

As I was leaving my place early Sunday morning to meet up with Juan, I have to be honest with you, I was a bit nervous. It’s not every day that you meet someone who was on death row for nearly as long as you’ve been alive. What do you say to this man? How can you possibly begin to empathize? Will he take me seriously as an abolitionist? Answers to these questions, along with invaluable life lessons were provided to me in the 24 hours I was with Juan.

I met up with Juan for breakfast and I took him somewhere to get grits and eggs. “Every time I’m in the south, it has to be grits and eggs,” he said. After breakfast, we sat down and he lit up a cigarette. Although I had been somewhat pensive up until this point, I saw this as an opportunity to ask my first question about his time on death row. “Did you have any good friends that died?” To anyone that knows death row, the answer is obvious, but I am a death row newbie so I was eager to hear his response. Before he began to give me an answer, you could see his face shift a little and his eyes saddened just a bit. He took a staggered draw and told me, “we were all brothers on death row, I learned English from murderers and rapists, when one went down or committed suicide I was deeply saddened, and they’ll stay with me until I’m gone.” Immediately I was taken aback, how can an innocent man befriend these guilty men I naively thought to myself? But Juan didn’t see them as murders, rapists, as condemned men. Juan saw them as human beings—human beings that had feelings, cried, felt pain, and shared their deepest thoughts together.

All too often, we relegate the men and women on death row to animals. Conversely, proponents of the death penalty think that “hey, they’re still alive, they still get to see their family members, even on death row.” It is true, they are alive, but they aren’t living the kind of life that I would describe as peachy. Death row inmates are stripped away of what makes them human. There was one thing in particular that lit a fire in my soul. I am very into physical fitness and I work out at least 5 times a week. Juan told me that while on death row they received 4 hours a week, 2 hours on Monday and Wednesday, to go to the yard. This was of course barring inclement weather which meant one single cloud in the sky. If that occurred, there would be no yard that day and the time was lost. I’d like to ask those who support the death penalty, support death row, or those who think that their time is easy to tell Juan to his face that his 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day on death row was easy. Have you held a man dying in your arms because the medical care was non existent? Have you been in a shower with the fear of being raped? Have you been stripped of your ability to make human contact with the ones you love?

Now I’d like to ask, can you support a policy that takes the risk of putting an innocent man in prison for nearly 18 years? Questions like that, along with questions about cost, deterrence, racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and much more were answered through Juan’s story. His story is a picture perfect example of the inequities and injustices that are pervasive in our capital punishment policy. Juan was poor, he didn’t speak English, he was implicated by a police informant with a vendetta, and so much more. What was it that freed Juan you may ask? A taped confession by the real killer that was purposefully withheld by the prosecutors was what did the trick.

This is why jurisdictions in Tennessee are passing moratorium resolutions calling on the Governor. We should stop killing people at least until the study commission has found its results. Shelby County and Davidson County have passed resolutions and now Jackson, TN is stepping up to the plate. It is with great enthusiasm and vigor that a strong contingent of folks including the NAACP, Jackson faith leaders of multiple denominations, and the Jackson TCASK chapter held a press conference and put on a speaking engagement at St. Mary’s for Juan to share his story. Both were a huge success and the article is a direct result of that group’s hard work. A major highlight in the article was a very supportive statement by City Councilman Johnny Dodd.

Before we departed I told Juan, “they may have taken away 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day from you, but I bet in these past 5 years you’ve lived more than most do in a lifetime.” Juan nodded his head gently but said “amigo, I thank you for your kind compliment, but it’ll be hard for me to forget those years, it’s hard for me to sleep with the footsteps of the guards still in my head, it’s hard for me to write because of the arthritis from the chains, so let’s make sure no one, not one soul, has to go through what I did.”


Troy Davis Granted 90 Day Stay

From the NCADP Blog:

The state Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted a 90-day stay of execution for Troy Davis, who was to be executed tomorrow in the killing of a Savannah police officer in 1989.

Lawyers for Davis spent more than five hours today pleading with the board to grant a reprieve, arguing that Davis is Davis innocent of the murder of Officer Mark MacPhail.

Prosecutors were given a chance during the closed-door hearing to rebut the request for clemency for Davis, who was to be executed tomorrow at at 7pm.

The board’s options included granting a stay of his execution while it considers the issues.

Also today, Davis’ lawyers filed an appeal before the state Supreme Court of an earlier decision by a Chatham County judge to deny a stay of Davis’ execution.

Among the people who argued for clemency for Davis during the parole board hearing were friends, family and US Representative John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights icon. Five witnesses who testified at trial spoke to the board on Davis’ behalf, Ewart said.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


From Both Sides

What if your child or loved one was murdered? Would you then desire revenge, desire retribution, desire the death penalty?

I always find it tough to answer this question because I have not been through the experience of having a family member murdered. I try to imagine the pain and anger that would fill me up if my mother or my sister were to be killed and I have to stop because I know that anger would consume me. So when I tell you from the bottom of my heart that if my mother was murdered that I would fight to the bone to ensure the murderer did not receive the death penalty, would you believe me?

Celia “Cici” McWee knows this pain and she shared it with us on Monday at our Middle Tennessee State University panel. On New Years day in 1980 her daughter, Joyce McWee, was murdered in a crime of passion by her husband. The husband was let off with one year of probation and retained custody of the children due to his family’s appointment of an excellent attorney and their general wealth. Twenty years later, her son Jerry McWee, was executed on death row for a murder of a convenience store clerk. After the first robbery, Jerry witnessed his partner in the crime randomly killing another individual and Jerry foresaw things getting out of hand so he turned himself in. However, the partner, a younger man with a long criminal history, struck a deal with the state and was able to avoid the death penalty if he testified against Jerry.

Celia McWee knows what it is like to have a loved one murdered…twice. She knows that money buys power in our justice system as she saw this two times over. Jerry couldn’t hire excellent attorneys to save him from execution and Joyce’s husband could. Celia knows that killing, in any shape or form, by the state or by a husband, causes pain--pain that she will experience every day for the rest of her life.

We are frequently challenged to address the rights of victims, to acknowledge their pain and their right to retribution. Celia has had a daughter murdered and a son executed, she’s a victim twice over. It will be easy for me to address that issue because of beautiful people like Celia who know firsthand how broken our system truly is and share this with the world.

Come back tomorrow for a story on Juan Melendez, a man that served on Florida’s death row for 17 years 8 months and 1 day for a crime he did not commit. Juan was also here in Tennessee this past weekend and did an incredible job kicking off our Jackson moratorium resolution campaign which I will also talk about in tomorrow’s blog.

Friday, July 13, 2007


What Kind of Day Has It Been?

Three big Tennessee cases received judgments in the Federal Appellate courts in the last 24 hours. We had good news, bad news, and good news again. I don't know what the proper order of such things should be, but here we go.

First off, in the case of E.J. Harbison, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Traugher issued a ruling yesterday in which she dismissed the state's motion to dismiss Harbison's challenge to Tennessee's "new and improved" lethal injection procedure, and will allow Harbison to proceed on the merits, which are very strong (for more on this, you can refer to a lot of our postings on this issue back in May). We don't know yet if the state will choose to appeal this decision to the 6th Circuit or if they will move forward to argue the merits, although, given the state's track record in fighting against full evidentiary hearings, my inexpert opinion is that Harbison will be heading to the 6th Circuit.

Speaking of the 6th Circuit, a panel issued a ruling this morning in the case of Abu-Ali Abdur Rahman, and the news is not good. Once again, the courts have managed to avoid looking at the facts (which are nearly unbelievable) in this case. This time the court had to change the standard by which this and similar cases have been reviewed all the way up to and through the U.S. Supreme Court. Rather than looking at the case under the Rule 60(b)6 rule, as has been the case, the majority of the panel suddenly asserted that the Rule 60(b)1 must be used. The difference? Under Rule 60(b)1, the panel concluded that Abu-Ali's petition was filed late (even though the rule under which it was filed was not promulgated by the Tennessee Supreme Court until after the statute of limitations that the panel says Abu-Ali should have met was passed). If you think that sounds pretty shady, I think that you are right, but the upshot is that, for the umpteenth time, Abu-Ali has been denied a fair hearing in court, and no court has ever considered all the evidence in his case!

But, we did finally get some more good news in the case of Paul Gregory House! District Court Judge Harold Mattice has set briefing dates for House and the state for a ruling on summary judgment, and everything should be to him within 30 days! And after that? A court may finally rule on the facts and the merits in this case, and get an innocent man home to his mother after 22 years!

So what kind of day has it been? I don't know. But it's been a busy one.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Another Way

More often than not, when our staff goes out to make a presentation in the community, we will get the comment, "You would feel differently about the death penalty if someone you loved was brutally murdered." Of course, I cannot pretend to know how that reality must feel for a loved one--the devastation, the rage, the pain that never goes away.

And yet, when I get such a comment, going to the heart of many people's support for the death penalty, I usually respond by saying, "You are right. I don't know how I would feel, but I hope that I would choose to respond in the same way that some murder victims' family members who I am privileged to know have responded."

Last night, I had the pleasure of sharing a meal and conversation with several family members of those who have lost children, siblings, and parents to murder, all who believe that the death penalty does nothing to bring healing, and in fact, only creates a more violent society and more devastated victims.

This group of family members have come together with other TCASK activists to create the Murder Victims' Family Speakers Bureau. The Speakers Bureau partners a victim's family member with an activist who then become a speaking team, making presentations to faith communities, on college campuses, and to legislators with the goal of ending the death penalty in Tennessee.

The hope is that the team can support one another, providing both with inspiration and confidence as they talk with various groups. While the family member shares a very difficult story of personal tragedy, the activist shares the facts about the failure of the death penalty as a public policy. Not only can such a team share the message of abolition in a powerful and personal way but can also inspire other victims' families who are opposed to the death penalty to find their voice, a voice which may have been silenced by the current system--a system often determined to seek the death penalty even, at times, against the wishes of the family.

There is no greater witness to the healing power of forgiveness than these courageous family members who, in spite of their pain, choose to seek a way to healing which does not require the death of another person. As Clemmie Greenlee, the mother of a son who was murdered on the streets of Nashville often says, "Why would I, the Mama of a murdered son, want to see another Mama's son murdered? I can't live with that."

In the tradition of Murder Victim's Families for Human Rights and the Journey of Hope--organizations of family members speaking out against the death penalty--TCASK hopes that this Speakers Bureau adds a much needed voice to the discussion of the death penalty in Tennessee while providing a powerful witness to the citizens of our state that there is a better way to support victims' families.

Monday, July 09, 2007


Another DNA Exoneration

Now my anonymous friend from the previous post (and a number of other ones) is going to love this, but it's news, it's the truth, and it happened, so it's getting posted regardless. Today, NJ has officially exonerated Byron Halsey after 22 years in prison for a brutal pair of child rapes and murders that he did not commit. Halsey was nearly sentenced to death, and might have been executed before this evidence had come to life if the death sentence had been imposed. You can read more, and even see and interview here.

In this case, Halsey, who suffers from learning disabilities, was interrogated for 30 hours, without a lawyer. Prosecutors pointed to semen on the victim's body and a cigarette butt, claiming that they pointed to Halsey, but new DNA testing has proved that none of the pieces of physical evidence is tied to Halsey.

Sadder still, the man that prosecutors are now charging with the crime, Cliff Hall, committed a string of brutal rapes from 1991-1992 while Halsey was serving crime for Hall's crime. This is another thing that we need to remember: every time we convict an innocent person of a crime, a guilty person goes free.

In the case of Paul House, while House had spent 22 years on death row, it's likely that a guilty person has gone free. Instead of insisting that, despite all the evidence, House is still guilty, we should step up, do the right thing, and get an innocent man home.


Big Time Bloggin'

The death penalty has hit one of the nation's biggest blogs, Daily Kos, with the story of Troy Davis. Stacy has blogged about this case, but now it's being talked about all over the blogosphere. With so many people having been exonerated from death row, and so many more, like Troy Davis and Paul House still sitting on death row for crimes they didn't commit, it's amazing that anyone can still feel comfortable with the use of executions as a public policy tool.

Check out the full post at Daily Kos.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


TCASK in the News Again!

After the great story on WPLN yesterday morning, Channel 2 WKRN carried another terrific story on the news last night about the death penalty study commission, which has recently been officially signed into law by Governor Bredesen. Chris Bungaard, one of WKRN's terrific reporters, had done an interview with me on the afternoon that our bill passed the House, but that was on June 7th (almost a month ago) so I was pretty shocked when my face showed up, but it was nice to see the media once again taking notice of what an important victory this was for justice and fairness in Tennessee!

You can watch the story here.

Monday, July 02, 2007


TOTI: A Success Story

For several weeks, you have heard about our first ever "TCASK Organizer Training Institute" or (TOTI), developed to train activists to become effective community organizers in their hometowns. This past Friday, activists from Jackson, Nashville, Knoxville, Murfreesboro, and Houston County gathered in Cookeville at Hidden Springs Organic Farm to spend a weekend learning the nuts and bolts of organizing as well as developing strategies to more fully harnass the power of the people of Tennessee.

Led by our team of trainers--Alex Wiesendanger, Isaac Kimes, and Stacy Rector--participants left the retreat with a list of goals for their home chapters as well as a set of skills and tools or "skools" (term created during the weekend) for achieving these goals. The group even spent several hours on Saturday creating and implementing a mock campaign from beginning to end, including mock meetings with local groups, council people, as well as the mayor of the town of "Cashville." I debuted in my role as Cashville's city mayor, who was not as easily swayed as the team would have liked! Nevertheless, the exercise gave folks a taste of the ebb and flow of a campaign to change public policy and ways to deal with the expected or unexpected resistance along the way.

Not only did we work hard and accomplish much over the weekend, but we found a few moments to relax as well. A few of us splashed around in the swimming hole on Saturday afternoon, and the whole group played an intense game of Scruples that evening. The weekend provided time to learn important organizing skills but also to focus on another crucial aspect of organizing: developing relationships. We all learned more about one another and the various communities from which we all come. These relationships are essential in our work to make abolition a reality in Tennessee.

Our hope is that next year's TOTI can include even more of you who want to empower activists in your local areas to join in the work of TCASK. With the creation of the Death Penalty Study Commission by the state legislature, Tennessee is entering a pivotal time in its history for finally addressing the brokenness of the death penalty. Every citizen of our state has a stake in the outcome of the study, and we must make every effort to include as many Tennesseans as possible in our work. If you didn't make the event this year, mark your calendars now for TOTI Summer 2008!


Save Troy Davis

Some of you may already be aware of the case of Troy Anthony Davis, currently on death row in Georgia. In 1991, Davis was convicted of murder largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony—no physical evidence links him to the crime. Since his trial, six of nine eyewitnesses have recanted their original statements, yet federal law prevents these new eyewitness statements from being heard. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Davis last week, opening the way for his execution.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has created a website providing a sample letter in order for you to write to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking for clemency. Please take a moment to let the state of Georgia know that Troy Davis should not be executed and must be given a hearing by the courts for new evidence to be examined.


WPLN Keys in Again!

"This was an issue no one expected to see come out of the legislature this year," WPLN's Capitol Hill Correspondent, Joe White, said to lead off a story on study committee's this morning. Of course, White was referring to the death penalty study committee! And I wouldn't say that no one expected it. Those of us at TCASK who had been working in between sessions building grassroots power to move our state legislature knew that this issue couldn't be ignored anymore.

White did a great job of explaining that, while the Governor looked at the "sloppy" execution protocols, our legislation examines the entire death penalty system. And he also points out that, of the large number of co-sponsors to this bill, about half are in favor of the death penalty. But the message is getting out: Tennessee's death penalty system is broken, and everyone is starting to take notice. Check out the story here.

Great work, Joe White!

Also, check out a terrific editorial by Brad MacLean and Bill Reddick regarding the Tennessee Justice Project's recent study of the disparity in resources between prosecution and indigient defense, published in Sunday's Tennessean.