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Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Curtis McCarty Speaks in Knoxville

On Thursday, April 24, I picked up Curtis McCarty from the Knoxville airport. We locked eyes as he passed through the security checkpoint and he flashed me a peace sign. As we shook hands, I tensed up--Curtis McCarty spent nearly 19 years on Oklahoma's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Would we talk about anything other than death row? Would we talk about death row at all? Would we have anything in common? As we walked to the car, Curtis and I spoke of our mutual fondness for the Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine and our disdain for text messaging and pop music.

I told Curtis that we'd have some time to relax before our speaking engagement at the University of Tennessee Knoxville Law School. He grinned. "If there's anything I know how to do, it's killing time." The weather was pleasant so I gave Curtis a walking tour of the UT Campus. Students were out and about playing frisbee, volleyball, and baseball. I only graduated from college eleven months ago, so this was a familiar sight. Curtis's educational experience was different. He completed junior high, but dropped out of high school. While on death row, Curtis kept up with his studies in science and technology and educated himself on the laws dictating his life. When he speaks, its quickly apparent that he's deeply intelligent. His words are chosen carefully. It's almost as if he speaks with the belief that every sentence could be his last.

Before Curtis was to speak at the law school, I told him that there would be attorneys, law professors, and students in the audience. This was an important event for TCASK; we're always looking to build relationships with schools. The room filled to almost 70 people. It was a Thursday evening in the midst of final exams.

Curtis began by immediately taking responsibility for ending up on death row. He shamefully recounted the juvenile history of drugs and crime which led him to associate with the murdered individual. To Curtis, his poor choices prior to his incarceration played a large role in his ending up in prison.

Yet, the state of Oklahoma is ultimately responsible for sending an innocent man to death row. The case of Curtis McCarty is riddled with problems that suggest he was wrongfully convicted in the murder of Pam Willis: suppressed evidence, destroyed evidence, and perjured testimony. Curtis spoke about his case with the knowledge and eloquence of a law professor. The students were impressed; some said Curtis knew more about death penalty law than they did, and were eager to bring him back for the UT Law Review Death Penalty Symposium next year.

The next day I took Curtis to speak at two assemblies at Knoxville Catholic High School. Again, this was an important event for us: Creating a strong base of Catholic support in Eastern Tennessee has always been a priority for TCASK. This time, Curtis spoke in a manner that suited the ages of his audience. Rather than sifting through the legal problems pervading his case, he focused on the personal story of his life.

"The only two people on this entire Earth who would testify on behalf of the worthiness of my life were my two parents. I have never been more ashamed in my entire life after I saw my mom tearfully pleading for the jury to spare me. I was still sentenced to death."

He shared photos taken at five year intervals when he was on death row. "It's tough to look at these photos because all I see are missed birthdays, graduations, soccer games, and weddings." The Principal told me afterwards that he saw specific students that he knew to be drug users hanging onto Curtis's every word. He said that we need to bring back Curtis every year.

The death penalty system is broken. 128 individuals have been released from death rows nationwide when evidence of their innocence emerged. Curtis knows this better than anyone, but he also knows that a life of crime made it easier for the state to convict him. It is a rare sight to witness someone so gracefully admit his shortcomings. A high school student asked Curtis, "When you got out of prison, were you angry?"

He replied, "I was angry, in fact I was very angry. I soon realized though that bitterness is unproductive. I wanted to be productive, and I wanted to seek justice. In order to do this, I had to stop being angry and instead tell my story." The story of Curtis McCarty is a story that needs to be told, over and over and over again.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Thanks to the Tennessean

In Sunday's Tennessean in the Opinion section, the paper explored the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocols. Opinions by Attorney David Raybin and Wally Kirby, director of the District Attorneys General Conference, also appeared. The paper highlighted the opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens, the co-author of the court's 1976 decision reinstating the death penalty, who now believes that all capital punishment is unconstitutional.

The Tennessean goes on to quote Justice Stevens in his opinion written on April 16 which states that "the time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived." The Tennessean concurs saying, "It has indeed. Can Governor Bredesen and his counterparts in 35 other states that impose the death penalty acknowledge that it is so?"

Read more here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Channel 5 Story on Paul House

Last night, Channel 5 News in Nashville featured a story on Paul House and his upcoming release to the care of his mother, Joyce, while the courts continue to wrangle over his case after 22 years. The story includes an interview with Paul who is battling multiple sclerosis. All who have followed this case through the years can see how the disease is taking its toll.

TCASK will keep you updated on the case as information becomes available. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case for the fourth time on April 30th. The hearing to set the conditions for Paul's release will occur on May 28th.

See the story here.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Justice Stevens Renounces Death Penalty

On initial viewing the ruling in Baze v. Rees is simple--7 Justices upholding Kentucky's lethal injection protocols and 2 Justices dissenting that ruling. Underneath that count is a splintered court that produced a separate concurring opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens.

An article focused on the ruling can be read HERE.
An article focused on Justice Stevens' opinion can be read HERE.

In the majority controlling opinion Chief Justice John Roberts made the following statements. “A slightly or marginally safer alternative” would not suffice, the chief justice said. He added: “Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm’ that qualifies as cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment."

It is important to clarify that Baze v. Rees was a case about the method of lethal injection and whether those methods violated the 8th amendment--not lethal injection itself. "The challenge was to the details of the injection’s administration: the chemicals used, the training of the personnel, the adequacy of medical supervision, and the consequences and risk of error." The justices were asked to rule if the risk imposed by the current lethal injection protocol in the state of Kentucky was in violation of the 8th amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"In an opinion concurring with the majority’s judgment, Justice Stevens said he felt bound to “respect precedents that remain a part of our law.” But outside the confines of the Kentucky case, he said, the time had come to reconsider “the justification for the death penalty itself.”"

"He wrote that court decisions and actions taken by states to justify the death penalty were “the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process” to weigh the costs and risks of the penalty against its benefits."

What troubles Justice Stevens is that states are justifying their death penalties as a result of its flaws rather than its successes. If states wanted to improve upon their death penalties they would be facing challenges based on what they can do better, not on what they are already doing, and continue to do wrong.

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Amended Bill Passes Senate Judiciary

Yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of the death penalty study extension bill, extending the life of the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty for two months through the end of 2008. The original extension bill would have extended the Committee’s life for a full year until October 2009.

Senator Mark Norris of Memphis proposed the bill's amendment. Ultimately the amended bill passed with “yes” votes from Senators Doug Jackson, Jim Kyle, Beverly Marrero, John Wilder, Diane Black and Mark Norris. Senators Jamie Woodson, Mae Beavers, and Paul Stanley passed on the vote.

The District Attorneys’ Conference has been resisting any extension of this Study Committee as its leadership claimed that the Committee was stacked with abolitionists. Unfounded and unfair accusations have been made by the DA’s Conference's Executive Director, Wally Kirby, in media outlets throughout the state concerning the work and membership of this Committee. In fact, within the Judiciary meeting yesterday, Senator Kyle raised the possibility of disbanding the Committee and reappointing a whole different committee. However, Senator Jackson quickly stated that the current Committee is a fair minded and talented group of people who should be allowed to finish the work that they started. Thankfully, the majority of the Judiciary agreed.

The bill must now pass the full House and Senate, and we are hopeful that it will.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008


The Supreme Court Rules on Protocols

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Baze v. Rees case upholding Kentucky's lethal injection protocols as constitutional in a 7 to 2 vote. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Kennedy and Justice Alito, affirmed that "because some risk of pain is inherent in even the most humane execution method, if only from the prospect of error in following the required procedure, the Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain."

However, what the Court did not address in this ruling are the continued problems with fairness, bias, ineffective assistance of counsel, or wrongful conviction concerning the death penalty. These and other issues continue to plague the death penalty system though the door has now been opened for executions to resume.

Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, upon the Court ruling stated, "Now with the resumption of executions, we renew our commitment to discuss the critical issues surrounding the death penalty system. Since the last person was executed--on September 24, 2007--we have seen a number of remarkable events. Four names have been added to the list of people freed from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged, bringing that number to at least 128. New Jersey has abolished the death penalty. Nebraska has no effective death penalty after its Supreme Court ruled the electric chair unconstitutional. The American Bar Association has called for a nationwide moratorium on the executions. And, the United Nations, reflecting evolving trends around the globe, has voted for a worldwide moratorium. And that's just in seven months."

Rust-Tierney concluded her stated by saying, "It seems that the more we learn about the death penalty, the more we learn we can live without it." Diann, I couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


More Paul House Media Coverage

Media coverage of the pending release of Paul House continues to flow in. Click HERE to watch an interview with Joyce House, Paul's mother. You may have to look below amongst the other video options to find the interview with Joyce.

Also, Sarah Kelley of the Nashville Scene has written an article on Paul House. It can be READ HERE.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008


How Ironic

Yesterday Judge Harry S. Mattice ruled that Paul House should be released to the care of his mother pending a hearing on May 28 to determine the conditions of that release. In his order he stated:

The public has a compelling interest in the State not continuing to incarcerate individuals who have not been accorded their constitutional right to a fair trial. Citizens will not have confidence in the criminal justice system unless they are convinced that the system is compliant with constitutional norms. The petitioner in this case has been incarcerated for 22 years as the result of a trial which this court, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States, has determined to have been fundamentally unfair.

I find it ironic that this ruling comes just one day after the Tennessean ran an article voicing the DA's Conference belief that the death penalty study should not be continued in this state. In 2007, Michael McCormick was found not guilty in a new trial after spending 15 years on Tennessee's death row, and now Paul House will hopefully go home after 22 years though his case is still very much unresolved. And yet, the DA's conference would have us believe that the system does not have issues which need to be addressed? Perhaps they should ask Michael McCormick or Paul House if they think an extra year of study is asking too much of our legislature to be sure that the system is working as it should be?

Not only was the Paul House story in today's Tennessean, but also, a wonderful article co-authored by Senator Doug Jackson and Representative Kent Coleman ran in the Tennessee Voices section of the paper. Jackson and Coleman are co-chairs of the Committee to Study the Adminstration of the Death Penalty, and they thoughtfully address the concerns of the DA's Conference. Let's hope that Tennessee legislators will allow this Committee the time needed to complete this important work on behalf of the citizens of this state.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Why All the Fuss?

The Tennessean web site recently posted a story concerning the Tennessee DA's conference's resistance to the extension of the legislative Committee currently studying the death penalty in Tennessee. James "Wally" Kirby, Executive Director of the District Attorney Generals Conference, is charging that the Committee is stacked with death penalty opponents and that the Committee's true intent is to abolish the death penalty.

However, as Mr. Kirby who has attended most of the Committee meetings knows, that is not the case. Senator Doug Jackson, a pro-death penalty Democrat from Dickson, has reiterated from day one that the Committee's charge is to examine the death penalty for fairness and accuracy. Abolition is not on the table.

Furthermore, the Committee's representation was clearly spelled out in the legislation which created the Committee last year with representation appointed by the Governor, the Senate, the House, the DA's, the Attorney General, various defense attorney organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Tennessee Justice Project (a reform oriented organization) and victims rights organizations. Where were Mr. Kirby's protests during the discussion and passage of that legislation through the General Assembly?

No one would be more excited than me if this Committee were planning to abolish the death penalty, but they are not. As an abolitionist, what I hope that the Committee will do is thoroughly and completely examine this system to ensure that if Tennessee is going to have a penalty which takes a human life that, at the least, the state does it as fairly and as accurately as possible.

The DA's fuss about this study strikes me as "protesting too much." Perhaps the real truth of the matter is that Mr. Kirby does realize how broken the system is and worries that if it is scrutinized, significant changes will have to be made. After all, if the system is working well, then what is the harm in studying it? I liken the DA's backward logic here to someone who won't go to the doctor for a physical for fear the doctor will want to treat him if a problem is detected...better not to go to the doctor and hope for the best.

According to the article, some members of the Committee are offended by Kirby's charges. I can't say that I blame them. I have been in attendance at every Committee meeting thus far and what I have observed is a group of thoughtful people who are concerned that Tennessee's death penalty system is as fairly and accurately administered as possible. I don't agree with every person's position who is on the Committee, but I respect the work that they are doing and want them to have the time to do it. Frankly, should citizens expect any less?

Since 1973, 128 people have been released from death rows nationwide after evidence of their innocence emerged. Michael McCormick of Tennessee became 125 last year when a Chattanooga jury found him not guilty in a new trial after he spent 15 years on death row. Paul House still waits for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to decide if he will be retried or released after spending 22 years on Tennessee's death row for a crime which new evidence indicates he didn't commit. Last year, Governor Bredesen commuted Michael Boyd's death sentence to life without parole after acknowledging the lack of adequate defense in his case.

The death penalty is broken, and everyone, including the District Attorneys Conference, should be concerned. If all is well with Tennessee's death penalty, let the Committee do its work and affirm its effectiveness. And, if the system is broken, let the Committee make some desperately needed changes in order to make sure that Tennessee doesn't execute an innocent person.

Read the article here.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Justice Day on the Hill

On April 2nd, TCASK members from across the state convened in Nashville at the state capitol to voice their opinions on the death penalty to Tennessee legislators. Last year’s Justice Day on the Hill was critical in the passage of Senate Bill 1911—a bill to create the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty. The Committee began meeting in October 2007 and has been producing fantastic results, uncovering myriad problems within Tennessee’s death penalty system. A primary focus of Justice Day this year was thanking legislators for the creation of the Study Committee as well as those legislators who signed onto Rep. Mike Turner's letter asking the Governor to pardon Paul House. Another aspect of Justice Day involved asking legislators to consider extending the study for an additional year in order that it be thorough and complete.

Justice Day on the Hill epitomizes what TCASK is about—ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things. How many folks out there can claim to have met directly with their elected officials to voice their opinion on the death penalty and advocate for change? Not many. Sometimes it seems that our society's obsession with being entertained has led to a great deal of apathy. I recently read a NY Times article prompted by the death of the 4,000th U.S. serviceperson in Iraq. The content of the article was mostly made up of emails and blogs written by U.S. soldiers. One soldier, Ryan Wood, wrote a telling commentary concerning U.S. society and its infatuation with celebrity such as Britney Spears. “This little piece of truly, heart-breaking news captured headlines and apparently American imaginations as FOX news did a two hour, truly enlightening piece of breaking news history. American viewers watched intently, and impatiently as the pretty colors flashed and the media exposed the inner workings of Brittany’s obviously, deep character. I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low.”

Tennessee’s broken death penalty might seem less important when you place it up there with issues like the war in Iraq or Darfur, but it is important to me. It’s also important to folks like Leslie who made the 2 hour trek from Tracy City to Nashville. It’s important to Amy who made the 3 hour trek from Memphis to join her mother Doris for Justice Day. It is important to students like Kathryn, Mary, Michelle, Anna, and Whitney who woke up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Nashville for Justice Day on the Hill from East Tennessee. Try asking these folks what they think about apathy as they huddle up outside of a legislator’s office to plan out their meeting. They would acknowledge it exists, but they witness to the power of engagement. They witness to democracy, to grassroots, and to change.

My first meeting of the day was with Rep. Chris Crider. I brought Doris and Amy (future Board Chair of TCASK) along with me. Amy seemed nervous. I ended up leading most of the meeting which was successful. Afterwards, we debriefed, and I focused on how easy it is because legislators want to hear from you. Amy still appeared uneasy, especially after I told her that we had planned on her leading some meetings later on in the day. After lunch I ran into Amy for the first time since our first meeting. Immediately I could tell there was something different about her as she shared about her experience of leading a very powerful meeting with Senator Beverly Marrero. As an organizer you dream of moments like this when folks feel empowered to make their voices heard. You put in long hours coordinating the event—setting up meetings, creating materials, doing outreach. All of that time is worth it when you see someone realize their own power.

TCASK schedules Justice Day on the Hill far in advance so we were thrilled to learn that the House Judiciary Sub Committee of Criminal Practice and Procedures would be voting to extend the life of the study committee on April 2nd. This gave the day an additional level of excitement and importance. In the end, the bill to extend the life of the study committee made it out of sub-committee. It still has a LONG way to go. But I am confident that it will pass as long as citizens continue to advocate for change and realize their own power.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will”
-Frederick Douglass

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Thursday, April 03, 2008


Number 128

Glen Edward Chapman becomes the 128th person nationwide to be exonerated after serving nearly 14 years on North Carolina's death row. Chapman was wrongfully convicted after an investigator withheld evidence and lied in court and because Chapman's defense counsel gave ineffective assistance. There’s more: One of the victims in the case may not have been murdered, but instead died of a drug overdose.

How many more of the wrongfully convicted are still locked up on death rows across this country? How many in Tennessee?

Read more here.