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Friday, February 29, 2008


Death Row Lotto

Once again, Sarah Kelley of the Nashville Scene has authored another superb/eye-opening/troubling article on Tennessee's death penalty. The article, titled "Death Row Lotto" focuses on the randomness at which this failed public policy is applied, read it HERE. Issues of proportionality, prosecutor discretion, inadequate defense, and many more are all explored. Highlights of the article include:

On proportionality:

“Even though a case might technically meet the test for the death penalty, it might not be appropriate. That’s what proportionality review is all about,” says David Raybin, a former prosecutor, who in 1972 took on the task of rewriting the state’s capital punishment laws. “It’s an extra safeguard so you don’t have an aberrant or freakish imposition of the death penalty. That’s what it’s designed to do. How it’s being applied in practice is a different story.”

On prosecutor discretion:

“To me, the prosecutor is the most powerful person in the state in the sense that there’s no review of his decision to seek the death penalty,” says Bill Reddick, director of the Tennessee Justice Project. For the past two decades, the longtime criminal defense lawyer has handled death penalty cases almost exclusively . And from his experience, Reddick says it’s clear that although the law requires capital punishment to be reserved for the worst offenders, instead it’s often handed out randomly in Tennessee. “There’s a big difference in the way prosecutors exercise discretion in the decision to seek death…. The type of justice being applied varies in different parts of the state.”

On inadequate defense:

"Due to an unqualified defense lawyer at trial, it would be several years before details emerged about Harbison’s horrific childhood, during which his mother beat him with belts and extension cords, his sister shot at him, his father attacked him with a power drill, and his older brother set him on fire. Also unknown to the jury was the fact that an expert had previously determined Harbison was borderline mentally retarded and psychologically impaired as a result of a lifetime of abuse, making him an easy target for a streetwise criminal like David Schreane to manipulate. But perhaps the most shocking post-trial revelation was that police failed to turn over crucial documents naming a third suspect who never was charged in connection with the murder, and instead was extradited to Florida on unrelated charges. Despite repeated requests for all files related to the investigation, this key evidence was withheld from Harbison’s defense until 14 years after he was sentenced to die."

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Thursday, February 28, 2008


Paul House Update

Earlier today, Judge Harry Mattice held a hearing on the case of Paul House. What made this hearing unique was that Paul House was asked to be present at the hearing himself. Judge Mattice wanted to view his condition and hear from Paul's physician at Riverbend. The reason being that Paul's attorneys are asking for his release pending the retrial. This would allow Paul to remain at home as the case makes it way back to the 6th circuit and presumably back to the state of Tennessee. The Knoxville News Sentinel covered the hearing and the article can be read HERE.

Highlights from the article include:

Today he (Judge Mattice) told Associate Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith it’s time to decide the issue.

“Let me say this, Miss Smith, do what you got to do but let’s do it quickly,” Mattice said. “I think it’s time to go ahead and decide, let’s retry Mr. House or do what we’re gonna do.”

He also questioned the state’s contention that House is a flight risk.

“The fact that Mr. House is ill does not eliminate the risk that we would lose this individual and be unable to retry him,” Smith said.

“How would that happen, by the way?” Mattice responded, looking at House sitting in his wheelchair.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008


An Evening With Hector Black

How does one forgive the murderer of their loved one? How does one find peace and reconciliation in an act of anger and violence? I have trouble answering these questions, but I am fortunate enough to know someone that can--Hector Black.

Last night in Knoxville, TN, just over 30 folks at the University of Tennessee Black Cultural Center convened to hear Hector speak. The event was planned and realized through the hard work of Knoxville TCASK chapter members who got the word out, did the media work, and were on hand to help sign folks up to TCASK's mailing list. When Hector speaks of his feelings towards a violent act between one human being and another, he says that "in doing so, we are only harming ourselves, we are all souls existing in this world together, hurting someone else is hurting yourself." The audience's age, education, beliefs on the death penalty may have been diverse but a commonality exists in our fellow human beings. Hector brings that unspoken camaraderie out more than anyone I've ever known. He has the ability to bring strangers together and make them feel as if they've known each other for years--even when talking about a painful issue like capital punishment.

Hector's daughter Patricia was brutally murdered in November 2000 by Ivan Simpson. It was a murder deemed worthy of the death penalty. The District Attorney wanted to seek the death penalty, but Hector and his wife, Susie, asked him not to. Hector's initial reaction to the news of his daughter's murder was an immediate desire to kill the man. I know I've heard my own father say that if anyone took my life or my sister's that he would hunt them down. This is how strong a parent's love is for their children. However, we must remember what love is. "I know that love does not seek revenge. We do not want a life for a life. Love seeks healing, peace and wholeness. Hatred can never overcome hatred. Only love can overcome hatred and violence. Love is that light. It is that candle that cannot be extinguished by all the darkness and hatred in the world." That statement was taken from Hector's victim impact statement at the trial of Ivan Simpson.

During the question and answer session after Hector spoke, he received one of the tougher questions I've heard posed to a murder victim's family member. A young woman asked Hector "if a family does support capital punishment, and their daughter is murdered, do you believe that they have the right to ask for it?" Hector answered by saying that "it is their right to ask for it and I can certainly understand the pain that parents are experiencing at that moment, but we must understand that in asking for the death penalty we are asking for revenge, we are not solving the problem, but only furthering it."

All too often folks against the death penalty are depicted as taking the "moral high ground." We are depicted as a contingent that relishes in our moral superiority. Although this may be true to some anti-death penalty folks, Hector is not one of them. Hector understands what anger is, he experienced it. He understands what loss is, he suffered the ultimate loss. But he also understands that everyone does not think the same exact way. People will respond differently when posed with the same situation. What is important to Hector is that we remember that although our opinions might be different, we are all human beings together, and that harming one another only serves to harm thyself.

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Friday, February 22, 2008


Shujaa Graham in Memphis

Last night, Shujaa Graham, an exonerated death row inmate, spoke to a crowd of nearly 60 folks in Memphis, Tennessee. The event was held at Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church. The pastor there is Rev. Dwight Montgomery. Rev. Montgomery is also the Memphis Chapter president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). (pictured above from left to right is TCASK Field Organizer Isaac Kimes, Rev. Dwight Montgomery, and Shujaa Graham)

Annesdale Cherokee Baptist is predominantly African-American, as is Shujaa. Memphis is 60% African-American. 40% of Tennessee's death row is African-American. 40% of Tennessee's death row comes from Shelby County. These facts should indicate the importance and timeliness of the event we had last night. It is vital to the success of the anti-death penalty movement that those advocating for reform are the population that are affected the most by it.

Shujaa tells a powerful story. He grew up on Louisiana plantations in a family of sharecroppers. In 1961 he moved to South Central Los Angeles where he lived through the Watts riot. Early on, Shujaa got into trouble, and by the age of 18, he was in Soledad Prison. Inside prison, Shujaa gravitated towards prison activism and was soon a leader in the movement. He says that he sought social justice inside the walls of prison because of all the widespread social injustice in the free world. In 1973, Shujaa was targeted and framed for the murder of a prison guard at the Deul Vocational Institute in Stockton. This was in large part due to his leadership in the movement. However, in 1973 there was no death penalty. But after the reinstatement in 1976 due to Gregg v Georgia, the state of California retroactively prosecuted Shujaa for the death penalty and he was sent to San Quentin's death row.

In 1979, the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction. They did this because the District Attorney had systematically excluded all potential African-American jurors. Shujaa remarks that some of these jurors were sons of police officers, or children of judges and that they would have made great jurors. After this victory, Shujaa maintained his innocence and was found innocent in his fourth trial. When Shujaa talks about the fourth trial he likes to talk about a specific juror. This juror was a Caucasian executive for Bank of America. Shujaa's attorney offered Shujaa the opportunity to get him off of the jury as the lawyer believed he would be detrimental to Shujaa's case. However, Shujaa had a gut instinct about the man, and believed he would make a fair decision. As it turned out, the juror was Shujaa's strongest advocate. Shujaa stresses to never judge a book by its cover, a man by the color of their skin, or the job that they hold. A wise lesson for all.

Although his life will never be the same, the opportunities that his wrongful incarceration has given him are a gift he says. He has spoken to a crowd of 1000 students in Italy. He has traveled the world preaching for social justice and condemning the death penalty. He has risen from the condemnation of death and become a beacon representing the value of life. But he still harbors concerns. The shootings recently at Northern Illinois University remind him that we live in a hyper-violent world. Shujaa survived the state of California's attempt to kill him, but so many perish every day at the hands of their fellow man. I believe Shujaa represents why a message of social justice is most effective when coupled with a message of peace. I believe that in achieving social justice, we will find peace, and in peace, we will find happiness.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Physicians and Execution

The New England Journal of Medicine had an editorial recently on the role of physicians in executions spurred by the US Supreme Court case, Baze v. Rees. READ IT HERE. Baze v. Rees has called into question the current lethal injection protocol. The editorial explains the risk of the current lethal injection protocols in a clear and concise manner. The editorial takes the position that "physicians and other health care providers should not be involved in capital punishment. A profession dedicated to healing the sick has no place in the process of execution."

I commend the journal for taking a stance in an issue that oftentimes is easier to ignore. Folks often forget that the death penalty doesn't only impact the executed, family of the murder victim, and family of the executed, it also impacts those involved with the process. Doctors felt a need to speak up and they have in one of the most popular and widely read journals out there. Below are two very important paragraphs from the editorial.

"We are concerned that, regardless of its decision in Baze v. Rees, the Court may include language in its opinion that will turn again to the medical profession to legitimize a form of lethal injection that, meeting an appropriate constitutional standard, will not be considered "cruel and unusual punishment." On the surface, lethal injection is a deceptively simple procedure, but its practical application has been fraught with numerous technical difficulties. Without the involvement of physicians and other medical professionals with special training in the use of anesthetic drugs and related agents, it is unlikely that lethal injection will ever meet a constitutional standard of decency. But do we as a society want the nation's physicians to do this? We believe not."

"Physicians and other health care providers should not be involved in capital punishment, even in an advisory capacity. A profession dedicated to healing the sick has no place in the process of execution. On January 7 in oral arguments in Baze v. Rees, the justices asked many important and thoughtful questions about a potential role for physicians and other health care professionals in executions. In their fuller examination of Baze v. Rees, the justices should not presume that the medical profession will be available to assist in the taking of human lives. We believe that, like the anesthesiologists in the Morales case, all responsible members of the medical profession, when asked to assist in a state-ordered execution, will remember the Hippocratic Oath and refuse to participate. The future of capital punishment in the United States will be up to the justices, but the involvement of physicians in executions will be up to the medical profession."

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Race Matters

Last night at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, a large group of students, professors, and other folks gathered to watch the documentary "Race to Execution." Rachel Lyon's film is a powerful documentary that "explores the deep and disturbing link between race and the death penalty in America." It focuses on two specific cases, Madison Hobley of Chicago and Robert Tarver of Russell County, Alabama and "interweaves their compelling personal stories together with groundbreaking scholarship." Tarver received the death penalty due to an Alabama statute which allowed the presiding judge to overrule the jury's decision for life in prison without parole.

There are many out there that would like to believe that race has nothing to do with the death penalty. I'm sorry, but those people need to remove themselves from LaLa land and enter the city limits of Realityville. Race is an issue not solely with the death penalty, but an underlying issue with our justice system as a whole.

Consider the following facts:
-Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (80%) have been executed for killing white victims, although whites make up 50% percent of homicide victims.
-98% of District Attorneys nationwide are white. These are the people who decide whether or not to seek the death penalty by their power of discretion.
-In Tennessee, 25% of African-Americans sentenced to death were condemned by all-white juries.
-African Americans make up 40% of Tennessee's death row population but only 17% of its total population.
-The US Supreme Court has even admitted that racial discrimination in the death penalty system is a
-You are 3 times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is white

DISCLAIMER: I am not proclaiming that the folks involved in the process, e.g., lawyers, DAs, judges, juries, are racist. Again, I am not stating/insinuating that these folks are racist. However, these facts show disturbing correlations that there is more value (value as in a death sentence) placed on a victim that is white. Furthermore, one is at a much higher risk if they are black and the victim is white. Facts are facts.

Those present at the documentary showing in Sewanee were affected, some were moved to tears. After the film, I took part in a three person panel discussion including a Constitutional law Professor and Leslie Lytle, Board Member of TCASK and Executive Director of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace. We fielded some excellent questions from bright students. The event was a major success. TCASK Student Board Member Jelena Milojevic did an outstanding job putting together this successful event.

I have come across a powerful and somewhat controversial statement that some black Civil Rights leaders are contending. Some have said that "prisons are the new plantations." I won't put forth how I feel about that statement. However, I will continue to vehemently contend that in regards to the death penalty, race matters; the race of the perpetrator and the race of the victim have a massive play in the initial trial; but more importantly, the utilization of a sentence of death.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Hector Black Featured on NPR

Hector Black, an active member of TCASK, was featured on NPR's Story Corps today. With soft spoken determination, Hector shared his journey to forgivness after the 2001 murder of his daughter, Patricia Ann Nuckles.
Patricia was 43 when she was killed by Ivan Simpson in her home. Providing a first-hand account of his emotional journey, Hector shared his experience of reading the following statement to Simpson in court: "I don't hate you, Ivan Simpson, but I hate with all my soul what you did to my daughter." Discussing his feelings for Simpson, Black told NPR "I really felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from me ... and that I had forgiven him."

Titled, "Father Finds Peace in Forgiveness," NPR's portrayal of Hector's journey captures the powerful nature of his gentle soul and faithful spirit. TCASK is blessed to have Hector Black within our commuinty. He is a testament to the power of forgivness and a witness to the love inherent in peace, forgivness and nonviolene.

Hector will be sharing his story in Knoxville on Monday, Februry 25th. Click here to hear his interview.


Nebraska Court Outlaws Electric Chair

The Nebraska Supreme Court this morning issued a strongly worded ruling striking down the use of that state’s electric chair. Because Nebraska has no back-up means of execution, this means Nebraska has no effective death penalty statute. This court ruling comes the day after a bill abolishing the death penalty cleared Judiciary Committee on a strong 6-1 vote.

Congratulations to Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty, to the Nebraska ACLU and to all involved in this tremendous victory. Below you will find a link to the ruling and a press release from Nebraska ACLU. We will keep you further informed as events warrant.

Read the court decision here.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


TCASK celebrates its very own "good-looking do-gooder"

TCASK's very own Isaac Kimes has made the Scene's annual Lust List. While we always knew he was a phenomenal field organizer and a passionate supporter of the movement, we had yet to fully recognize his "lusty" side. Thank goodness the Nashville Scene took notice and pointed out all of Isaac's shining characteristics. We are certainly lucky to have him here at TCASK--and in Nashville--not only because of his outgoing personality, enthusiasm, passion and talent but also, as we now know, because of his award winning good looks. Described as "attractive, altruistic and unattached" by the Scene, this "good-looking do-gooder" is an integral part of both the Nashville community and the TCASK family--let's take a moment and celebrate Isaac, Nashville's latest "cute and clever catch."

For a picture of Nashville's lustiest organizer and to read the Scene's article: CLICK HERE.