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Monday, June 30, 2008


Property Bond for House

This past Friday, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood reduced Paul House's bail to $100,000. This reduction has allowed Joyce House, Paul's mother, to post a property bond to satisfy the bail. Paul House will be released into the custody of his mother--this week. You can read more about this development from an article in the Tennessean, click HERE to read it.

Although House has not won his innocence in a court of law, the fact that he will soon be home with his mother is a significant victory. House has been on Tennessee's death row for 23 years. He will now be in the comfort of a home and in his mother's care.


Friday, June 27, 2008


Paul House Is One Step Closer to Freedom

A bail reduction hearing for Paul House was held today in Union County in order for the court to reconsider the amount of bail required for House's release. At the June 6th hearing, bail was set at $500,000, an exorbitant amount for a man in a wheelchair who is not a threat to the public nor a flight risk.

In today's hearing, bail was reduced to $100,000. This means that the House family must pay 10% or $10,000 of that amount in order for Paul House to make bail and go home.

TCASK, in conjunction with Joyce House and the Nashville Scene, is planning a fundraiser to raise the bail money for House. We hope to have details finalized next week.

If you would like to make a donation towards Paul House's bail now, you can send a check to TCASK, P.O. Box 120552, Nashville, TN 37212 and write “Paul House” in the memo line. If the federal courts intervene making bail unnecessary, the funds raised will go the Joyce House in order to help her care for Paul's special health needs.

Thanks to all for your support.



Fine Journalism for Paul House

Reporter Sarah Kelley and the Nashville Scene continue to show a commitment to fully exposing the story behind the case of Paul House. Kelley's most recent article was the cover story for the latest issue of the Scene and it does not disappoint. The story is comprehensive and gives the reader a full understanding of what the House and the Muncey families have been forced to bear through for the past 23 years--a flawed system concerned more about convictions and vindictive practice than true justice. You can read the article by clicking HERE.

If you desire to have a more complete understanding of House's case, this is the article to read.

Let me know what issue in his case troubles you the most by posting a comment.

For a taste, the article begins as so:

"Paul House sat shackled in a windowless room tucked inside the concrete Union County Courthouse in rural East Tennessee. The prisoner’s mother waited with him and grasped her youngest son’s cuffed hands, struggling to hold back tears. House tried to console her, even with his own life at stake.Paul House sat shackled in a windowless room tucked inside the concrete Union County Courthouse in rural East Tennessee. The prisoner’s mother waited with him and grasped her youngest son’s cuffed hands, struggling to hold back tears. House tried to console her, even with his own life at stake."


Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Supreme Courts Rules on Kennedy v. Louisiana

The U.S. Supreme Court has released its opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana, regarding the constitutionality of sentencing a person to death for the rape of a child in which no murder occurs. Patrick Kennedy is the first person in the country in the modern era of the death penalty to receive such a sentence.

The Court was considering whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from imposing a death sentence for child rape, and, if not, whether Louisiana's statute fails to narrow the class of offenders eligible for death.

In a 5 to 4 vote, the Court ruled that imposing a death sentence for the crime of child rape where the victim does not die nor was death intended is, in fact, unconstitutional. The decision was written by Justice Kennedy. Dissenting were Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, Justice Thomas, and Justice Scalia.

Read the full decision here.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Both Sides Agree System is Broken

Today's Nashville City Paper featured an excellent article written by John Rodgers reporting from the Promptness Sub-Committee meeting of the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty. You can read more about the sub-committee meetings in previous blog posts. Read the Nashville City Paper article by clicking HERE.

The article keys in on the lengthiness associated with the death penalty process and the conversation that long time frame elicits amongst proponents and opponents. Important stakeholders, the family members of murder victims, share varying viewpoints when it comes to the death penalty. While it seems that proponents are in favor of capital punishment due to a desire to see such punishment meted out and to receive a sense of finality, they are growing skeptical of a system that takes decades to reach fruition.

"Verna Wyatt, the executive director of You Have the Power, a victim’s advocacy group, said making the families of victims wait oftentimes decades for the killer of their loved one to be put to death is “re-victimizing the victim … for years and years."

"I would like to say to Tennesseans — if you don’t think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, then let’s not give it out because giving out a sentence of death, the victims families wait forever to get their justice,” Wyatt said. “So if Tennesseans don’t think that this is an appropriate punishment — then we shouldn't be giving it out. We shouldn't’t even be asking for it.”

I believe that Wyatt's sentiments are right on target. The state is making a promise to families that it simply cannot keep. Another approach that some victims' families take is the one chosen by the Strobel family. Charlie Strobel's mother was murdered and as opponents of the death penalty, Strobel and his family asked that prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for the murderer.

"Strobel’s mother was murdered and he said his family received closure quicker because they told prosecutors they did not want the killer executed.

Instead, three life sentences without parole were handed down, Strobel said.

“It just is awfully, awfully painful to hear that people are stuck waiting for a justice that doesn't close anything,” Strobel said, adding that the state should help families understand the appellate process better.

In other Tennessee death penalty news, the US Supreme Court has taken the case of EJ Harbison on "whether poor death row inmates seeking mercy from state officials have a right to lawyers paid for by federal taxpayers." Read more about this by clicking HERE.

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Friday, June 20, 2008


Study Committee Resumes Work

Yesterday, the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty resumed its work after several months of inactivity because of the legislative session. The Committee divided into three sub-committees in order to attempt to cover the enormous amounts of material which must be examined by year's end. The three sub-committees are: Accuracy, Fairness, and Promptness.

The Promptness sub-committee (whose title is a bit misleading) met for the first time yesterday to begin with a broad overview of the issues which it is to address including: the needs of surviving victims of murder and execution; direct appeal and post conviction review proceedings; mental retardation, mental illness, and the death penalty; and geographic, economic, and racial discrimination in the death penalty system.

Pictures from the meeting can be seen by clicking HERE.

In the meeting yesterday, Verna Wyatt, Director of You Have the Power, a victims' advocacy organization showed the film, "The Other Side of Death Row," which interviewed several family members of those who were murdered in Tennessee and the painful journey which they have endured waiting for executions to be carried out.

What I repeatedly heard in that video was the torment that these families go through over years and years of appeals. In fact, two of the family members stated that if it was going to take so long, why didn't the state just give these guys life without parole? Another recurring theme was that "closure" is an elusive concept that no sentence can ever bring. This video highlighted for me that the death penalty system does not serve victims' who agonize for years as cases are in legal limbo, and in fact, adds to their suffering.

The Tennessee state Treasurer also spoke to the victim's compensation program and the financial help that is available to crime victims' or families of crime victims. This program is comparable to many state programs and does good work in addressing some of the needs of victims. However, as with all state programs, money is tight. I couldn't help but wonder how much more assistance could be given victims if the millions of dollars we spend to seek the death penalty (often resulting in a life sentences anyway) could be used to supplement this needed compensation fund.

Elizabeth Ryan of the Attorney Generals' office testified concerning the direct appeal and post conviction process, though with significant gaps of information which the committee still needs to address. Specifically, the question which continued to be asked by Representative Dunn, "where does the process get so delayed?" Ryan conceded that sometimes it is the state who delays and sometimes the defense. However, though many assume that defendants plug up the process with appeals, when talking to attorneys and inmates alike, I have discovered that it is often the courts themselves who are slow to act, sometimes sitting on cases for years before they render a decision. Limiting appeals is not the answer to dealing with the delays, particularly considering that even with a lengthy appeals process, 129 people have been released from death rows nationally when evidence of their innocence emerged, sometimes after 20 years on death row.

Finally, Dr. Pam Auble testified about her work with many of the inmates on Tennessee's death row and how mental illness and brain injury affect that population of people. Very significantly, she discussed the population of inmates (12 of the 49 with whom she has worked) who have severe mental illness with psychotic features and who can't appreciate reality. Many of these inmates have long histories of such mental illness and have been diagnosed years before coming to death row.

The case of former Tennessee death row inmate, Richard Taylor, is an example of the problems with attempting to execute those with severe mental illness. Besides the fact that such executions are immoral since these inmates cannot appreciate the reality of their crimes, seeking their executions is extremely time consuming and wasteful. Richard Taylor, who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness, received a death sentence for killing a correctional officer while off of his medication. After 20 years of litigation, Taylor recently accepted a life sentence rather than enduring a new trial. Imagine the years of agony the victims' family would have been spared as well as the millions of dollars to the state if a life sentence had be given to this very sick man in the first place.

TCASK will continue to keep you informed of these Committee meetings and hope that you will consider attending. There is so much work to be done, and I applaud the committee members for their commitment to this process. As citizens, we must inform our legislators about this work and demand that serious reform be a result. Reforms to the system will reduce the numbers of people sentenced to death and demonstrate to citizens that we do not need the death penalty to protect society and hold others accountable. In fact, the death penalty may do far more harm to all of us.

Read Tennessean article here

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Sixth Circuit Hears House Case Again

In a surprise move, a three judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals gathered in Nashville today to consider an appeal filed by Paul House which claims that the state should by barred from re-trying the case. House’s federal defender, Steve Kissinger, argued that the state is not in compliance with Judge Mattice’s December 7, 2007 order which asserted that House should be retried or released in 180 days. Today marked 180 days since that December decision. The court is also considering whether or not House should be released if the case is remanded back to district court for further consideration.

The state argued vigorously against barring retrial and that the Sixth Circuit did not have the authority to grant House’s release since House is now in state custody and is unable to make bail. In an ironic twist, Jennifer Smith of the Attorney General’s office asked that the court deny this appeal as she was concerned that its consideration might delay the resolution of the case. After the state has denied House relief for 23 years by playing games with the courts, now it has the audacity to claim that the defense is dragging its feet.

The court is expected to rule quickly, and TCASK will keep you informed as to the court’s decision.


Friday, June 13, 2008


More about Richard Austin

In today's Tennessean, Dwight Lewis wrote an interesting column concerning the case of Richard Austin, the oldest and longest serving inmate on Tennessee's death row, who recently died at the DeBerry Special Needs Facility here in Nashville. Lewis discusses the history of the case, a history that I didn't even know.

Thanks to Dwight Lewis for reminding us that the problems with the accuracy and fairness of Tennessee's death penalty are not new but have plagued the system since its beginning, and in an imperfect system, they always will.

Read Lewis' column here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Ohio Must Change Lethal Injection Drugs

Yesterday, Ohio Judge James Burge ruled that the state's method of putting a prisoner to death is unconstitutional because two of the three drugs used for the injection can cause "an agonizing and painful death." The decision means that Ohio must stop using the two risky drugs, pancuronium bromide (pavulon), a paralytic which has been outlawed by veterinarians, as well as potassium chloride, which stops the heart and can cause excruciating pain if the inmate is not properly anesthetized.

The Judge ordered that the state use only a single, anesthetic drug. State officials were reviewing the decision in order to determine if they will appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Tennessee uses the same drug cocktail in its current protocol, which has also been successfully challenged in Federal Court by death row inmate Edward Jerome Harbison. In the Harbison case, Judge Aleta Trauger issued a blistering opinion finding that the Tennessee Department of Correction was “deliberately indifferent” about the risks of the lethal injection protocol. The state filed an appeal, and the Sixth Circuit stayed Harbison's execution scheduled for the fall of 2007.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent Baze vs. Rees decision did not find Kentucky's current protocol to be unconstitutional, Tennessee's protocol is slightly different with findings in the trial court specific to Tennessee, and therefore, is still being litigated.

The Ohio Judge's ruling only reaffirmed what many of us already know: there is indeed a substantial risk of excruciating pain an suffering with the continued use of this three drug cocktail which absolutely violates one's constitutional right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment.

This issue is not one which will be going away anytime soon as long as the state continues to seek a "humane" way to take a person's life.

How much time and money are we willing to spend in deciding how to kill people when the more pressing question is: Why do we kill people who kill people to demonstrate that killing people is wrong?

Read more about the decision here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Longest Serving Tennessee Death Row Inmate Dies

We received word yesterday from the Tennessee Department of Correction that Richard Austin, the state's oldest and longest serving death row inmate, died at DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville on Sunday. Austin was sentenced to death in 1978 after a conviction in Shelby County of accessory before the fact to murder. He was the first person sentenced to die under Tennessee's current death penalty law enacted in 1977.

Though given a death sentence, Austin ultimately served a life sentence. This sentence held Austin accountable for the death of undercover officer Julian Watkins while protecting society. Unfortunately, what his death sentence didn't do was bring any closure to Watkins' family as they waited 30 years for the sentence to be carried out. Had Austin received a life sentence in 1978, the family would have been spared many agonizing years of waiting for an execution that would never come.

The reality of our broken system is that, even with years of appeals, the system still makes grave mistakes with 129 people having been released from death rows nationwide when evidence of their innocence emerged. Because all of these appeals are necessary in an attempt to ensure that such mistakes are avoided, the system must include them. So, by maintaining the death penalty and the appeals process that accompanies it, victims are promised healing and closure from a system that rarely, if ever, is able to provide it.

Furthermore, the cost of seeking the death sentence for Richard Austin was certainly high, as the costs of all capital cases are. Yet, he ultimately received a life sentence anyway. Why do we continue to waste the state's already strapped resources on the death penalty when we could save victims' families a whole lot of agony and the state a whole lot of money by making life without parole our maximum punishment in Tennessee?

I continue to wonder why we as a society hold on to this system. When are we going to be able to take a more rational look at how it works (or doesn't work) and determine that there is another way to handle the violence around us?

I hope that we will all keep the family of Officer Julian Watkins and Richard Austin in our thoughts and prayers this week. Both families have suffered much, and I hope they all can find some peace.

Monday, June 09, 2008


TCASK Board Retreat

This past weekend TCASK held its annual Board retreat at Pickwick Lake in Southwest Tennessee at the lake home of our incoming Board Chair, Reverend Amy Howe and her husband, Dave. The purpose of such a retreat is to gather the board in a special location, develop a multi-year strategic plan, and build camaraderie amongst the board and staff of TCASK. This was my first board retreat, and I was very excited to work on the strategic plan—and get out on the beautiful water of Pickwick Lake.

TCASK has a wonderful Board of Directors. All are devoted to honoring life by abolishing the death penalty, the mission of TCASK. After dinner the first night, we gathered at the table to begin the board meeting. Admittedly, board meetings can be a little long winded for my taste. This time, however, I felt energized by the enthusiasm of those sitting around me and the meeting’s idyllic location. The board had a successful meeting, and we retired to our beds in anticipation of a full agend the following day.

Sarah Craft from Equal Justice USA was at the retreat to help us develop our strategic plan. Craft is a seasoned organizer and has been a resource of TCASK for many years. In fact, Sarah helped develop our strategic plan three years ago (from which almost all of the goals have been accomplished). Sarah and TCASK’s board and staff worked for 7 hours straight to develop our new strategic plan for 2008-2009. Weary from the intensity of the planning process, I was a bit overwhelmed when I viewed my responsibilities over the course of a year and a half.

But, I couldn’t have been happier. Those seven hours of focus produced an exciting plan for the next months. Sometimes our work can feel indefinable, but with a plan you receive a sense of direction. When you are part of the planning process, one feels compelled to ensure that these goals are accomplished. And I can assure you that our TCASK team of staff, board, and membership will do everything we can to accomplish the plan’s goals—and to accomplish our mission of honoring life by abolishing the death penalty. 


Friday, June 06, 2008


Paul House Bail Hearing Update

Earlier today in Maynardville at the Union County Court House, bail was set at $500,000 for Paul House. House has been assigned a public attorney and there will be another hearing on June 27 to entertain arguments from the defense to reduce the bail amount. House will remain at DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville.
Read this article from Saturday's Tennessean about the bail hearing by clicking HERE (excerpt below).
"His mother, Joyce House, surmised that the state would not want the expense of driving and taking care of an inmate who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. She thought there was a chance he'd make bail.

But Criminal Court Judge Shayne Sexton set the bond at $500,000, well out of her reach. House got back on the transport van to the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville.

"He was slumping in his chair," his mother said. "He was tired from the trip. I didn't think the state would want to have him. Evidently, they did. This whole case has been crazy.""


Thursday, June 05, 2008


How Difficult Can it Be

This might come off as macabre. But seriously, in the year 2008 how difficult can it be to willingly kill a man? It continues to prove difficult as executioners in Georgia took 35 minutes to find a suitable vein to execute Curtis Osborne; he was pronounced dead 14 minutes after the first drugs entered his body. You can read more about this HERE.

We know that the death penalty system is flawed. But I would expect that the fruition of this public policy mess could be without flaw. We have no trouble euthanizing animals. We were tragically reminded of this as Eight Belles, a horse in the Kentucky Derby, was euthanized on the track of Churchill Downs. But when it comes to healthy human beings we falter. I am reminded of Angel Diaz who had to suffer terribly through 37 agonizing minutes as inept executioners watched him slowly die.

I can already see the comments now. "Just take a gun and place it to the back of his head." Unfortunately that method does not subscribe to our Constitution's 8th amendment which bans cruel and unusual punishment. However, if I were on death row and awaiting lethal injection, a procedure known to be errant, I might plead for that method of execution. I can also see other forthcoming comments or thoughts. "The victim didn't receive any mitigation of pain. Their life was taken, cruelly." True. However, the victim is gone. We can't travel back in time. We can change the way we react and punish those who have murdered. We can work to make the method less flawed.

As many of you may know, the US Supreme Court recently took a case (Baze v. Rees) to examine the current lethal injection protocols. Little has changed since this landmark case. Lethal injection continues to be a varied method across the states that utilize it. Some have doctors present, some don't. States use different amounts of the three drug cocktail. While the death penalty remains highly arbitrary and capricious one would hope that the method of killing these inmates would not be so arbitrary. One can hope.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Last Rights

Last night Rev. Joseph Ingle spoke about the re-release of his book “Last Rights” and personally signed copies. The talk, at Davis Kidd Booksellers, was attended by over 40 people and was covered by CSPAN. “Last Rights” tells 13 stories of 13 different death row inmates that Rev. Ingle counseled. All were executed.

Pictures from the talk can be found HERE.

Through “Last Rights” Rev. Ingle accomplishes a difficult mission—showing the world that those on death row are human beings, fellow “children of God.” Ingle does not attempt to ignore the crimes of which these 13 men and women were convicted. He instead shows us that they are not the monsters we so readily objectify them to be. At the talk, Rev. Ingle read excerpts from his book. One excerpt dealt with a man who saw Rev. Ingle in a fatherly light. “I felt like a father figure to him. He was always trying to make me proud, constantly telling me of his love for sports. He said that he’d remain strong and that he wanted the others on death row to know he was strong.” Rev. Ingle then told us that this man had an IQ of approximately 60. “He wasn’t aware of the gravity of the situation. The day of his execution he told us that he’d see us in a couple of days. He was a child in a man’s body.”

More on “Last Rights” can be found HERE.

When talking about his experiences, he noted that through his work he has met some of the finest individuals. I too can attest to that statement. This work is difficult and is oftentimes painful. But strife brings out the best in us. When this fight is over we’ll be able to celebrate the sacrifices of people like Rev. Ingle who have made the abolition of the death penalty and ministering to the condemned the work of their lives. Rev. Ingle put it best when describing the folks he met when counseling a particular death row inmate. “The people I have worked with are woven from the same cloth. We’re bound together by seams and stitches.”


Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Richard Taylor Receives Life Sentence

Press Release from the ACLU:

NASHVILLE — A severely mentally ill man who spent 18 years on death row and whose conviction and death sentence were reversed by a Tennessee appeals court in March was sentenced to life imprisonment today. Richard Taylor, twice forced to stand trial despite his severe mental illness, agreed to the sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to the 1981 murder of a Tennessee prison guard — a crime committed only after prison officials stopped giving Taylor his anti-psychotic medication.

Read the rest of the release by clicking HERE.

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Joyce House Interview

WBIR, Channel 10 in Knoxville has an extensive 20 minute long interview with Joyce House, mother of Paul House.

The link to their general video archive can be found HERE.

Once there, go to video search and search "Joyce House." It should be the first one that comes up.

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Monday, June 02, 2008


Making Bail

In Sunday's Tennessean, columnist Gail Kerr wrote a great piece concerning Paul House's upcoming bail hearing scheduled for Friday in Union County. The purpose of bail is to assure the appearance of the defendant at trial while assuring the safety of the public. Paul House, now bound to a wheelchair, is hardly a threat to the public. And, given that the majority of the evidence used to convict him has been discredited, House is no flight risk as he is eager for a jury to hear all the evidence.

Why should House run when the evidence points to his innocence? Why should House run when the U.S. Supreme Court stated in 2006 that "no reasonable juror would lack reasonable doubt" in this case? Paul House should be released to his mother's care with an electronic monitoring device and with the least amount of bail as is feasible. After 22 years of living on death row without a fair trial, the system should require no more from Mr. House.

The state of Tennessee continues to demonstrate its inability to concede that big mistakes were made in pursuing this case. And yet, instead of reflecting on and acknowledging the errors, the state is spending more time and money to prove that they can win again, whether or not they've got the right man. Let's hope that this time around, when the jury hears all the evidence, justice will finally be done. In the meantime, let's get Paul House home.