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Friday, December 21, 2007


He's Not the Man I Met 10 Years Ago

Today's Tennessean featured an article about the recent ruling on the case of Paul House. The article can be found HERE.

The article is a good one and feature some notable quotes.

"I've spoken with Mr. House," federal community defender Stephen Kissinger said. "He's pleased with the judge's decision. I am as well. ... It's been a long time coming."

Earlier this year, state Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, led an effort in which 32 Tennessee lawmakers signed a letter urging Gov. Phil Bredesen to pardon House. Turner said Thursday that he intends to ask attorney general Bob Cooper not to appeal. "I think he probably won't," Turner said. "And I think the local prosecutor probably won't pursue it. He'd have to be crazy to because there's not any evidence. I think he'll be home in 180 days."

Hopefully it's sooner than 180 days (me).

And finally...

House has multiple sclerosis and is in a wheelchair in a medical ward of Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility prison in west Nashville.

Asked about his condition, Kissinger said, "Whether death is imminent, I'm not a doctor," Kissinger said. "But I can tell you with certainty, he's not the man I met 10 years ago."

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Thursday, December 20, 2007


Judge Rules on Paul House Case/Poll on Tennessean

Judge Rules on the Paul House Case

Judge Harry Mattice ruled just hours ago that Paul House will be granted a conditional writ of habeas corpus resulting in the VACATION OF HIS CONVICTION AND SENTENCE unless the state commences a new trial against him within 180 days after the judgment become final. At this point, the state’s intentions are unclear, but our hope is that resources and time will not be wasted on a retrial when there is no real evidence remaining against House.

This news has been over 20 years in the making and means that Paul House is on his way to becoming the 127th exoneree nationwide and the second in Tennessee in the last month. Needless to say, this is the best holiday news any of us could have received. All of the prayers, actions, letters, and events made this moment possible for Paul House and his mother, Joyce.

TCASK is so grateful to all of you who partner with us in this struggle for a more just and compassionate Tennessee. As more news becomes available, TCASK will post it on the blog.

Vote YES for Abolition on Tennessean

On the website of The Tennessean there is a poll asking this question: Do you think Tennessee should abolish the death penalty? Please go to their website HERE and vote YES right now (this poll will not be up long). If you are having trouble finding the poll, it is located near the bottom of the front page of the website.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Tennessee Op-Eds on New Jersey

A significant amount of media attention has been focused on the death penalty as of late especially with New Jersey's recent abolition. Much of that attention has been in the great state of Tennessee including this recent op-ed column in The Tennessean that can be found HERE. The op-ed column has also appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Tennessee's interest in capital punishment shouldn't come as a surprise. The state recently exonerated Michael McCormick of Chattanooga who served 15 years on Tennessee's death row. Tennessee is also currently studying the administration of the death penalty in a special committee created by the state legislature. Also, Governor Bredesen commuted the sentence of an individual on Tennessee's death row to life in prison.

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Monday, December 17, 2007


It's Official: New Jersey Abolishes the Death Penalty

Today, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine (photo above, Jeff Zelevanksy/Bloomberg News) signed legislation that makes New Jersey the first state to abolish the death penalty in forty years. The eight men on death row in that state have 60 days to decide if they will drop all their appeals and accept sentences of life without parole. The abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey is a great gift to the people of that state, insuring that innocent people will not be executed and that the millions of dollars formerly used on the death penalty system will now be used for programs which actually prevent violent crime and support victims' families. Read more here.

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Present Handout at Riverbend

Often times when I inform people that I am an organizer for an anti-death penalty organization one of the first questions I typically receive revolves around my visitation or involvement with Tennessee’s death row inmates. While I write some prisoners and am hoping to visit one in the New Year, I always feel somewhat disappointed when I inform folks that I have only been out to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution once and that was for an execution. This past Thursday I had the very special privilege of handing out gift packages to a number of prisoners at Riverbend. (photo above is Harmon Wray taken by Daniel Dubois, Harmon was a frequent visitor of Riverbend)

First, I have to admit something. There is a stretch approaching Riverbend on Cockrill Bend Blvd. that winds around and is dimly lit. Both times I have driven along it I have felt a tinge of fear in my spine. I can’t fully explain this, but there is just something about going to the grounds of a place where you have explicit knowledge of people’s lives being taken. Also, on this occasion I was nervous about conversing with prisoners as a free man. What would we chat about? My apprehension though dissipated as I saw the warm faces of others handing out presents in the lobby of the visitors building, including the Visitor on Death Row coordinator, Susan McBride. After signing in, passing through the metal detector, and receiving a pat down, we were ready to greet some prisoners and hopefully bring some holiday cheer into their lives. Also, an important realization helped to ease my tensions. Why on earth was I worried about myself and how I would act? These men are worried about their families and loved ones and all they can do is wait for their next visit or communicate via phone and letter. My worries were meaningless and bringing them inside the prison grounds would only compound the inescapable gravity of being an inmate in a maximum security prison.

I presupposed that the inmates at Riverbend would be happy to see us. I imagine that any departure from the daily grind of being prisoners would be welcomed. I was surprised though to see how happy and appreciative of our 3 hours they all were. The first prisoners we interacted with were a line of fellows that greeted us as we entered the chapel. I shook hands with them and wished them a Merry Christmas, just as I will when I see my father in Seattle, or my friend tomorrow. After some snacks provided by the prison cafeteria we headed to the first housing unit to hand out presents. When we walked into the open area of the housing unit I looked at the cells and saw eyes peering out curiously from almost every cell. I too was curious to see what their lives were like.

I spent on average 10-15 minutes talking with 6 different prisoners, one in particular I remember well. His name was Frank and he was from Memphis. Frank had a nice southern drawl and his small cell was clean and organized. When the doors were unlocked I handed him his gift package and we shook hands. Frank immediately asked me what my ethnicity was. I told him that I was half-Korean and half-Caucasian and I was then surprised to find out that he was too. As we conversed about football and CSI, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened in his life that resulted in him committing a crime worthy of decades in prison. Where had our two lives, as fellow biracial half-Koreans diverged? I reminisced on my childhood—caring parents who were involved with every facet of my life, the affordance and privilege of going to college. Did Frank ever have a chance or was he like many of his fellow inmates, born into a system that marginalizes the poor and punishes them for their mistakes.

They say that one of the simplest ways to judge a society is to view its treatment of its outcasts. I won’t place much judgment onto the actual conditions of the prison (although the cells were tiny and no lunch is served on the weekends), but instead I hope that when people read this they ponder this important notion. Prisoners are human beings just like free men and women. They laugh and cry; they have families; they like sports and television; they are capable of expressing gratitude. Each and every prisoner I had the chance to meet was so incredibly grateful of the time we were spending with them; the look on their faces was something I won’t soon forget. Just 15 minutes of conversation. 3 hours total. To them, it was so much more. Thinking back, to me, it was much more as well.

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Friday, December 14, 2007


Congratulations New Jersey!

Sometime yesterday afternoon, the phone rang here in the office. I was deep into "end of the year" financial stuff (my favorite) when Isaac told me I had a phone call. It was Sarah Craft, a friend from Equal Justice USA. Sarah quietly said, "Stacy, I have to tell you something." "Yes," I replied. She continued, "New Jersey just voted to abolish the death penalty." Even though I knew the repeal was most likely going to happen, to actually hear those words..."Hallelujah," I said, "Hallelujah!"

What a gift to the people of New Jersey this holiday season that lawmakers in that state were able to put emotion and politics aside and truly reflect on the facts concerning the death penalty. After the state conducted a thorough study of the system, much like the one Tennessee is currently conducting, the facts were clear.

The study found that there was no "fix" for the death penalty system. It found a deeply flawed policy that spent millions of dollars for no results. It found no deterrent effect and in fact, discovered that the system delays healing for the loved ones of murder victims. Furthermore, despite the safeguards, New Jersey lawmakers concluded that there is no way to guarantee that an innocent person will not be executed.

In the end, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, crime victims' advocates, Democrats and Republicans all came together to say "enough is enough." The death penalty did not serve the people of New Jersey nor does it serve the people of Tennessee. It does not make us safer and drains vital resources away from programs that actually do. My prayer this season is that Tennesseans will let their legislators know that this policy is broken and is not serving us. The people of Tennessee deserve better.

Read more about the New Jersey decision.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


New Jersey on the Brink

"One hundred years from now I hope we will be remembered for having had the courage to be leaders in advancing this cause for a more civilized society," said Martin, R-Morris. This quote appeared in an article at Newsday and can be found HERE.

On Monday, the state Senate approved an abolition bill. Today, barring inclement weather, the Assembly will vote on abolition legislation. If it is passed, New Jersey will become the first state to rid of the death penalty by legislative means since 1965 when Iowa and West Virginia abolished it.

Nationally, there is momentum growing for death penalty foes, including here in Tennessee with the formation of a special study committee to study the administration of capital punishment. The Tennessee committee received a shout out in this article. Also, in the Newsday article, Michael McCormick's recent exoneration was mentioned as well.

We here in Tennessee are proud of the work of New Jersey's abolitionists and will continue to strive forward. As indicated by both articles mentioning this state, we are in the thick of this national abolition trend.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Memphis TCASK On a Mission

The drive to Memphis is 3 hours and very boring. However, the next hour and a half of my time is absolutely wonderful. This time is spent at the Emmanuel House meeting with the Memphis TCASK chapter—the longest sustaining chapter in Tennessee. This past meeting also saw another record being challenged or broken—attendees for our monthly chapter meetings. In Memphis, there were 15 folks in attendance other than myself. The celebration of this strong showing was short lived though as Pete Gathje, Professor at Memphis Seminary and Emmanuel House operator pointed out that there was not one person of color in attendance. This vacancy is heightened more so by the statistic that Memphis is a city with 60% of their population represented by African Americans.

It would be easy to say “well, we can’t seem to get the African American community involved, what can we do?” However, the Memphis TCASK chapter is a smart bunch. They know that it is up to them to look within themselves and what they are doing to create that change and involve the entire abolitionist community.

On February 21, 2008 at 7:00 p.m. they will be putting on an event at the Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church. This church is African American and is led by Rev. Dwight Montgomery, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Memphis chapter president. Also, the speaker will be Shujaa Graham. Shujaa is African American and was exonerated from the San Quentin death row in a case mired in racial bias. So to recap: the event is at an African American church with a strong African American civil rights leader and the speaker is also African American and will be speaking about how race affects the death penalty. A smart/inspired bunch indeed!

On a national conference call today we were discussing the strategy behind New Jersey’s success. Much of it was contingent upon diversity amongst the anti-death penalty voices calling on their legislators to pass the legislation. It is vital that we involve Tennessee’s African Americans in this movement. It is vital due to historical reasons as well as contemporary and Tennessee’s success will be contingent on their diverse voice.


New Jersey One Step Closer to Abolition

Senators on both sides of the aisle voted 21 to 16 yesterday to repeal New Jersey’s death penalty statute, after a comprehensive study found that capital punishment wastes tax dollars, prolongs the suffering of murder victims’ family members and is likely to result in wrongful death sentences. Law enforcement officers and district attorneys from across the state supported the repeal effort.

The New Jersey General Assembly could vote as early as Thursday and is expected to support the Senate’s action on the measure. If approved in the General Assembly, it will go to the desk of Gov. Jon Corzine, who has indicated he will sign it. New Jersey would be the first state in modern U.S. history to legislatively abolish the death penalty; Iowa and West Virginia last did so in 1965.

The action in New Jersey reflects a growing national trend against the death penalty, with death sentences and executions facing a steep decline since the late 1990s and with more states advancing abolition and moratorium legislation as well as other reforms. “We have learned a lot about the death penalty in the past thirty years,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “When you look closely at the facts, it just doesn’t add up to sound policy.”

Rust-Tierney noted that the New Jersey legislation advanced after murder victims’ family members, police officers and police chiefs and the New Jersey County Prosecutors Association came out firmly in support of repealing New Jersey’s death penalty statute. “Today’s vote is good common sense,” she said. “The fact is we know so much more about the death penalty than we did when New Jersey reinstated it twenty five years ago. New Jersey legislators have spent years debating and studying the death penalty. They determined that its costs, the pain it causes victims’ families and the risks it poses to innocent lives each combine to make the death penalty something we all can live without.”

Today’s vote comes less than a week after yet another innocent person was freed from death row. Last Wednesday, Michael L. McCormick of Tennessee was acquitted by a jury of his peers in a retrial after spending 15 years facing execution. McCormick is at least the 125th person freed from death row after evidence of innocence emerged.

The same problems that characterize New Jersey’s death penalty system – the fear of convicting and executing innocent people, the high costs associated with capital punishment, and its failure to offer anything of value to victims’ family members or those in law enforcement – also plague the Tennessee system and led to the creation of the study committee that is currently examining Tennessee's death penalty.

Perhaps, in this season, where so many faiths celebrate the light of hope and appeal for "peace on earth," we as a nation can reflect more deeply on the death penalty, moving closer to the day when we will no longer kill people who kill people to say that killing people is wrong.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Fairness at Stake

The Tennessee study committee met for two days this week and heard a variety of testimony from local and national witnesses on the state of the death penalty in Tennessee. A few highlights:
  • Libby Sykes, from the Administrative Office of the Courts which oversees the Indigent Defense Fund in TN, testified that since 2000, the funding for indigent defense in this state has continued to decline and is currently $1,000,000 less than it was in 2000.
  • The last increase in the hourly wage for attorneys defending indigent clients was made in 1997. Currently the rates are $60-80 per hour for out of court work and $100 for in court work (not even enough to cover overhead expenses). Compare that rate to the billing rate for law associates only 5 years out of law school working for private firms, whose average hourly rate is $210.
  • The average fee claim for an appointed attorney working for an adult charged with a felony was $529, which means that attorneys worked, on the average, less than 13 hours on any particular case.
  • Robert Spangenberg, a national researcher on indigent defense, stated that in Tennessee the prosecution receives about 3 times the resources that the defense does.

After hearing all this testimony, Senator Jackson commented that "in the Pledge of Allegiance, we state 'with liberty and justice for all.' But, it seems that we are only willing to pay for so much for that."

In yesterday's meeting, Tom Lee, a committee member and private attorney in Nashville, gave a powerful statement concerning the fairness of the death penalty system given these financial realities. He noted the unfairness to the poor, to people of color, and to those with mental illness. Another committee member added that either the state needs to pay to make the system fair for everyone or the system needs to go.

I couldn't have said it better myself

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Former Tennessee Death Row Inmate Found "Not Guilty" by Jury Today

Huge news out of Chattanooga today. Michael McCormick, who spent 15 years on Tennessee's death row before winning a new trial, was found "not guilty"of the 1985 murder of Jeannie Nichols. Though Ms. Nichols family still believes in McCormick's guilt, the jury deliberated for seven hours on Tuesday and a couple of more hours today before returning the verdict. Read more about the case here.

A hair found in Ms. Nichols car, used to convict McCormick in his first trial, was later found not to belong to McCormick after DNA testing. Such different outcomes in his trials highlight why the risk of the death penalty is too great and should not be employed in any case. Any human institution does and will make mistakes and such error is irreversible when the death sentence is imposed and carried out.


New Jersey Close to Abolition

On Monday, New Jersey moved one step closer to becoming the first state to abolish the death penalty since its reinstatement in 1976. A Senate budget committee approved replacing capital punishment with life without the possibility of parole. A full assembly vote is expected on December 13.

The effort to abolish capital punishment in New Jersey stems from a January report from a state commission which found that the death penalty was a more expensive sentence than life in prison and did not deter murder...sound familiar?

Already, only two months into its study, the Tennessee study committee on the death penalty has heard testimony from David Raybin, author of the state's death penalty statute, and from others, that the death penalty in Tennessee is more costly and not a deterrent.
Furthermore, the comptroller's office testified that they had no way of tracking the true cost of the death penalty to taxpayers in Tennessee. In other words, our state has no idea what we are spending on this broken system.

The Tennessee Study Committee continues its work today and tomorrow as it meets at Legislative plaza to hear more testimony. Let us hope that the committee can listen to the facts, regardless of personal feelings about the death penalty, in order to determine if this system needs a complete overhaul or better yet, needs to be abolished.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Bredesen Says No Executions Until Next Summer

"Tennessee isn’t likely to execute any prisoners on death row until next summer, Gov. Phil Bredesen said Thursday."

This statement was included in an article from the AP and can be read HERE.

Governor Bredesen delivered this great news this past Friday as three execution dates loomed in December and January--Pervis Payne, E.J. Harbison, and Paul Dennis Reid. The news however, should not be perceived as a surprise move. There is in effect a de factor moratorium on executions across the nation as states wait on the US Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocols. The two KY cases that the Supreme Court along with the ruling of U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger (Tennessee) have put lethal injection under close examination. Personally, I am glad that the Governor has definitively stated that executions are on hold, but I am wary of the date of "next summer." It is very likely, that the Supreme Court will rule in March and lethal injections will then be back on.

If the new lethal injection protocols are constitutional, how will the state of Tennessee and Govenror Bredesen then respond?