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Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Student Conference on the Death Penalty

When I finished my plan for the 2008 Student Conference on the Death Penalty, I had set a goal for an attendance of 100 students from across the state of Tennessee. My thinking was that if I did the work necessary to accomplish the goal and maintained the mindset of a 100 person conference, that the attendance would be strong. As David Kaczynski began his keynote address, Denver told me that 120 students had checked-in for the conference.

The keynote address by David Kaczynski was powerful. David is Executive Director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty (NYADP) and Ted Kaczynski’s brother. He talked about the death penalty from an informed and unbiased standpoint. He told us about his brother Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. David and his wife Linda were responsible for Ted’s arrest as they took their suspicions of Ted’s actions to the FBI. Later, David would receive a phone call from Bill Babbitt that would change his life forever and lead him to the anti-death penalty movement. Bill Babbitt’s brother Manny was responsible for the murder of an elderly white woman in the Sacramento area. Manny was a decorated Vietnam Vet who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Bill turned his brother in after assurances from the police that the death penalty would not be sought. However, the Babbitt family is African-American and was not able to afford good counsel. Ted Kaczynski on the other hand did not receive the death penalty. David was able to afford excellent counsel and maneuver his way through the justice system to save Ted’s life. After attending Manny’s funeral, David knew that his calling was to work to reform and ultimately end the death penalty.

After the keynote address, there were 3 workshops to choose from and they went back to back so that students could attend two. The workshops were: Death Penalty 101 led by Stacy Rector, Sharing Our Stories: Murder Victims’ Families Speak led by James Staub and Denver Schimming, and Mental Illness and the Death Penalty led by David Kaczynski. The death penalty is a confusing and lengthy public policy. Stacy led students through the three tiered system of litigation while also highlighting issues of fairness, cost, and accuracy. Stacy also talked about the troubling case of E.J. Harbison which epitomizes the arbitrary nature of the death penalty and the lack of proportionality in punishment. James Staub talked about his mother’s murder and his stance against the death penalty. James tells an emotional story that presents a perspective most will never have to experience. Denver helped James as they talked about the Sharing Our Stories speakers group and informed students that they could come to their campuses. David’s workshop went into detail about how mental illness, the death penalty, and the criminal justice system coexist.

After lunch, Jeanne Rewa of Equal Justice USA led an organizing training to empower students to build the movement on their respective campuses. The focus of the training was how to effectively build and demonstrate power. Students brainstormed potential events on their campuses and the power required to make them successful. They also gauged how much power they could build through a “building power” event to later transform that into an effective “demonstrating power” event.

The combination of education and empowerment is what defines the Student Conference on the Death Penalty. I hope that students left the conference feeling better educated on the death penalty as a public policy and in a position to take action and effect social change. I feel confident that students will continue to play an integral role in our legislative victories and ultimate abolition of the death penalty.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Troy Davis Receives Last Minute Stay

Only two hours before Troy Davis was to be executed in Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider Davis' appeal. Davis wants the Court to order a judge to hear from the witnesses who have recanted their original testimony against him and from others who say another man confessed to the crime.

A variety of influential people have spoken out on Davis' behalf included former President Jimmy Carter, Al Sharpton, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

In 1989, Davis was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based only on witness testimony. Seven of the nine non-police witnesses have since recanted that testimony, stating that they experienced police coercion.

Davis' sister, Martina Correia, has been working tirelessly on behalf of her brother in order for the court to consider the new evidence indicating that Davis is innocent. The public outcry in this case continues to grow, demonstrating that when enough people are willing to speak and act, the powers that be are forced to listen.

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider the appeal on Monday and if they choose to hear it, the stay will remain in effect. If the Court decides not to hear the appeal, the stay will be automatically lifted, and Georgia can move forward with the execution.

We will keep you posted on this case and will provide more actions for you to take if and when they are necessary.

I have included a statement released yesterday from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.


WASHINGTON, DC – The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty joins with pro death penalty law enforcement officials, abolitionist, civil and human rights organizations in calling for a halt in tonight’s scheduled execution of Troy Davis. There is just too much doubt about whether Georgia is executing the right man to proceed. There is no public consensus in this case, and that should be required before the government asserts its power to kill. To the contrary – the lack of public consensus and concern is reason enough to stop.

We are at a watershed moment in this case. If the execution proceeds, the State of Georgia, its Board of Pardons and Parole and the Georgia criminal justice system will be going beyond the point of return. They will have crossed an unfortunate threshold. No individual or institution that loves justice or fairness will ever be able to look at the individuals involved in this process in the same way.

We will have learned in a sad and tragic way that in the State of Georgia it really doesn’t matter whether you are guilty or innocent of committing a crime once the State is determined to execute a man or a woman. What passes for justice in the State of Georgia is mere window dressing.

If we did not know and understand it before, we know now that the criminal justice system in Georgia is broken. Whatever happens tonight, the struggle is not over. We are committed to helping the citizens of Georgia root out and throw out what is broken in hopes of building a criminal justice system that is worthy of its citizens.
Davis should be given every opportunity to have his appeal heard, especially as he may be innocent. No physical evidence links him to the crime for which he was convicted, the shooting death of a police officer. Additionally, the prosecution based its case on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses, seven of whom have recanted their testimony. One of those who did not recant is a likely suspect in the case. Several of those who did recant indicated that they were coerced into falsely identifying Davis as the killer. There may be more evidence that law enforcement officials withheld information from the defense which would prove Davis’ innocence. Once a person is put to death there is no opportunity to revisit the decision. There can be no posthumous clemency. The State of Georgia should not execute an innocent man.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Hair Found on Body Not House's

An independent lab has found that the hair discovered in the hand of Carolyn Muncey did not belong to Paul House. This hair was considered to be the last piece of critical evidence potentially linking House to the murder of Muncey in 1983. Before the testing of the hair, District Attorney Paul Phillips stated that he would consider dropping the charges if the hair did not belong to House. Despite that statement and the validation that the hair does not belong to House, Phillips is planning on going on with the case. In fact, Phillips believes that the hair, which belongs to a male, could bolster a new prosecution theory. "We have statements suggesting Mr. House was with other males on the night of Carolyn Muncey's death," Phillips said. "The fact that this hair in her hand was not (House's) or her husband's is consistent with (House) being with other males that night" (

It sounds like D.A. Phillips is grasping at straws. House's Federal Defender, Stephen Kissinger stated "The evidence at trial has been totally undercut and the new evidence tends to even more clearly demonstrate Paul Houses innocence," Kissinger said. "He (Phillips) continues to move forward with the case which he knows has no merit whatsoever" (

The state of Tennessee is in a financial crisis and this expensive and time consuming trial is moving forward. The money of hard working Tennesseans and the taxes they pay should not be wasted on this frivolous trial. Paul House should join the growing list of those released from death row when evidence of their innocence emerged. Yesterday, this list grew to 130 as Michael Blair was exonerated from a 1993 murder with DNA evidence. You can read more about this by clicking HERE.


Monday, September 15, 2008



This past Friday the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for Troy Davis. Davis was convicted of a murder in 1989 based only on witness testimonies. Since the original trial, seven of the nine non-police witnesses have recanted their accusations, saying that they experienced police coercion. Due to heightened restrictions to the GA appeals process these important facts were not presented to the Board.

Troy's execution date is set for September 23 but the Board has the authority to reconsider their decision. To better research this case and/or find ways to take action to help Troy Davis:

Friday, September 12, 2008


Daryl Holton, 1 Year Later

One year ago Daryl Holton was executed by the state of Tennessee for murdering his four children. The vigil that TCASK organized at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for the execution was early on in my tenure with TCASK and has served as a galvanizing moment in my conviction against the death penalty. Because of the severity of Holton's crime, his execution did not create a large scale public reaction of opposition. As a death penalty opponent, I am opposed to every single execution. In dealing with Holton's execution, I learned many valuable lessons.

I learned that nothing will change what the perpetrators of crimes worthy of the death penalty have done. We must never forget the murder victims and the family members of murder victims. However, an execution closes off any possibility of forgiveness and redemption that these men and women could have sought--while locked up in their cells. We shut that door forever when we execute them.

I learned that the death penalty is wrong morally, but in order to convince the public it is wrong, we must show them why it is wrong factually. When talking to the media or an audience about our opposition to Holton's execution it was difficult to talk about his case in particular. It was not difficult to point out that the death penalty costs significantly more than life without parole. I could point out that the death penalty is unfair as 90% of Tennessee's death row could not afford their own attorneys at the time of conviction. The death penalty also puts the lives of innocent Tennesseans at risk: Paul House, Michael McCormick.

Daryl Holton's execution was a life changing moment for me. I was witness to the state's ultimate power--to take the life of a human being. However, I was also witness to those that come together to oppose the taking of a life. It was a beautiful group of people and although I was sad then, I knew that there would always be people in opposition to the death penalty and that they will come together in solidarity--a comforting assurance.


Thursday, September 11, 2008


Study Committee Hears from TN Justices and Barry Scheck

Tuesday proved to be a very full day for the members of the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee. The meeting began at 10:00 a.m. with comments from Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade and new Chief Justice Janice Holder. The Justices addressed several of the recommendations which the Committee is considering including bypassing the Criminal Court of Appeals (CCA) for capital cases and instead having all death penalty appeals go straight to the Tennessee Supreme Court, as well as the creation of an independent authority to oversee capital defense services in Tennessee.

Justice Wade stated that he and other Justices do not feel that eliminating the CCA level of appeals is a good idea as meaningful review should not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. He likened the current structure, which includes review of death cases by the CCA, as the difference between dealing with a shotgun blast wound (more scattered) and a rifle wound (more precise).

Currently, the CCA reviews every appeal and identifies a few key issues upon which the TN Supreme Court can focus its attention. This selection process allows the TN Supreme Court to give more precise focus to only a few issues as opposed to addressing every issue. Though Rep. Dunn appreciated the comments, he still believes that eliminating one tier of the process (CCA) might be beneficial in the long term.

Concerning the independent authority, Justice Holder stated that the court did consider creating such an authority in 2004 but wanted more evidence that it worked in other states. Now that other states, such as North Carolina, have moved in that direction, the evidence does suggest that an authority could improve the process. She believes that the Court would support such a move by the legislature.

After lunch, the Committee heard from Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project working to uncover wrongful convictions, not only to free the innocent but to find the guilty. Scheck spoke for three hours concerning all the issues which need to be addressed by the Tennessee Committee, including DNA preservation, eyewitness identification procedures, and recording custodial interrogations about which he stated that "the only people who don't like for interrogations to be recorded are the guilty."

Scheck also fully endorsed the idea of creating an independent authority to oversee capital defense services in Tennessee and stated that of 187 death sentences given in Tennessee since reinstatement in 1977, 39 of the defense attorneys in those cases have been disciplined with 11 of them remaining on the list from which Tennessee judges still appoint attorneys to represent indigent defendants.

Other frightening facts shared by Scheck included:

  • There have been 20 exonerations in the city of Dallas alone since DNA testing became available.

  • Of those inmates exonerated by DNA, 78% were identified by false eyewitness testimony.

  • Kirk Bloodsworth who was exonerated by DNA evidence was also identified by 5 separate witnesses demonstrating the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

Tom Lee shared some Tennessee polling data showing that though a majority of Tennesseans do support the death penalty, a majority also feel that the state has made errors and that innocent people may have been executed. Given that data, Charlie Strobel believes that this Committee must do a thorough study, not only to address the obvious systemic problems with the system, but to restore public trust.

We are grateful for the press coverage of this important meeting and hope that members of the Committee were paying attention. It was disappointing, however, that three of the legislative members of the Committee were not present for Scheck's testimony. I hope that all of these legislators and other Committee members who missed the meeting will read the transcripts of Scheck's testimony or watch the testimony online as it is so important that they hear the data and consider it as they move forward.

Read an article about the Committee meeting here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Movie. Madness. Mohr.

My name is Katie Mohr and I am the newest addition to the TCASK state office. I recently graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English Writing and Psychology. I have relocated to Nashville and committed myself to a year of service with the Young Adult Volunteer Program sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which placed me in the TCASK office. Social justice has always been a part of my life and I am excited to see, learn, and help make change happen in TN one day at a time.
My first two days with TCASK were madness. As you know the TN Death Penalty Study Committee met on Monday and Tuesday. Basically, Stacy and I sat through hours of meetings and I recieved one of the most intense crash courses on the Tennessee legal system and the injustices within that system concerning the Death Penalty. After the meetings we made our way over to the Belcourt Theater for the presentation of "Loved Lived on Death Row".
The film was a great success. Nearly 150 people attended the the screening and stayed after the film to ask questions to the film's director, Linda Booker.
The movie tells the story of the Syriani family. The father, Elias, killed his wife and was sentenced to NC's death row while his four young children, orphaned and angry moved to Chicago. About 14 years later the kids decided to visit their father on death row and through their visitations, began a journey of forgiveness. The Syriani children began a fight against the death penalty in order to rebuild their family but Elias was executed by the state in 2006. From my perspective, Booker did a fantastic job intertwining many social issues including the death penalty, domestic violence, and man's ability to forgive. The movie prompted great discussion on these issues and I, and I hope many others, walked away with a new education and a more clear perspective on capital punishment.

Monday, September 08, 2008


More Death Penalty Study Committee News

Today the Fairness subcommittee of the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee met to continue its discussion about how to improve representation for indigent defendants charged with capital crimes in Tennessee. Report after report cited in the Committee, including reports by the American Bar Association and the Tennessee Bar Association, highlight the lack of adequate defense services available to indigent defendants in our state who are on trial for their lives.

The Fairness subcommittee decided to recommend to the full Committee that an independent office of death penalty representation services be established in Tennessee in order to address some of the problems with the current system.

This office would be charged with raising qualification and training standards for attorneys defending capital cases; monitoring capital case workloads and performance to ensure that defendants were being represented adequately; determining the services that defense attorneys need to defend their clients; setting compensation rates for capital counsel; and finally recruiting and appointing counsel and/or providing judges with a list of qualified counsel from which the judge could appoint.

The subcommittee recommended in a 3 to 2 vote to send these suggestions on to the full Committee for consideration. Voting for the proposal were Bill Redick of the Tennessee Justice Project; Rich McGee, representing the Post Conviction Defenders; and Tom Lee, appointed by Governor Bredesen to the Committee. The two votes against the idea were cast by Elizabeth Ryan, representing the office of the Attorney General and by John Campbell (filling in for Al Schmutzer) representing the District Attorneys General Conference.

However, nothing about the creation of this office impacts the prosecution. Their objections centered around creating another government office (though all agreed that the current system has problems) which they do not believe to be necessary as well as their concern that judges maintain appointing authority for attorneys to represent indigent defendants, even though many trial judges themselves have never defended a capital case or may not know any lawyers in their districts who are able to defend a capital case. And, in actuality, these judges may actually welcome the opportunity to be relieved of the burden of finding and appointing defense counsel to indigent clients.

Here is what I find most interesting. Though prosecutors have access to the services of the TBI and FBI at their disposal and though they do not have to ask a judge for the permission or the funds to hire experts, etc., both Ryan and Campbell still object to the creation of an office established by the defense bar to level the playing field for poor defendants.

Though in statement after statement during these hearings, (and stated again today during the meeting), prosecutors have claimed that they want to work with the best defense attorneys in these trials because it makes the trials go more smoothly and raises far fewer issues later. And yet, they resist the creation of this office which would give them what they say that they want--better defense attorneys. And, though the creation of this office would have no effect on their ability to prosecute cases in any way, they still find reasons to reject it.

The full Committee will discuss the idea of an independent office of death penalty representation services in more detail tomorrow as well as hear testimony from a couple of Tennessee Supreme Court justices and Barry Scheck, cofounder of the Innocence Project. The meeting will be held in Room 12 of Legislative Plaza from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Sister Helen Prejean Speaks to the Interfaith Gathering at the Democratic National Convention

I received this email recently sharing the words of Sister Helen Prejean to the Interfaith Gathering at the Democratic National Convention. Here are some excerpts:


Jesus said, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, the ears that hear what you hear." O God, give us ears to hear and eyes to see. Oh, say, what do we see by the dawn's early light? We are a nation in crisis, a nation with eight out of ten of us sensing that we're going down the wrong road. I speak today as a woman of faith, a woman in the Christian tradition, to address our sacred responsibility to our nation – sacred responsibility is the language of the soul, of the holy, the call to responsibility that goes deeper than politics. My deepest lessons about sacred responsibility to our nation I have learned in government killing chambers, the darkest, most hidden corner of America. As spiritual advisor I have accompanied six human beings to their deaths. I do not know what these six men experienced physically as they were killed, but I do know that they experienced great mental anguish, preparing for death, anticipating death, and so dying in their minds a thousand times before they died. Inherent in the practice of the death penalty is the practice of mental torture. I have also been privileged to accompany murder victims' families in their search for healing. The real heroes of my book, Dead Man Walking are a father and mother, Lloyd and Eula LeBlanc, whose only son was murdered. Lloyd said, "Jesus told us to forgive. I am not going to let hate take over me because then I'd be dead too."

... What has happened to us? Practice of the death penalty on our own soil has, I believe, developed a mindset that makes it easier for us to kill those we designate as enemies – or suspected enemies – and to torture them. The death penalty, far from being a peripheral moral issue concerned with the punishment of a few criminals, reveals the very soul of America, and it lays bare our deepest wounds: our racism, our assault on poor people, and our ready instinct to use violence to solve social problems. The death penalty is riddled with racism. Overwhelmingly the punishment of death is meted out to those who kill white people - eight out of every ten persons on death row is there for killing a white person. Rarely is the death penalty sought for those who kill people of color, even though most victims of homicide – 50% plus – are people of color. Disproportionately singles out poor people. 95% of death row prisoners are poor. Death is almost exclusively punishment for poor people. And the third wound. our country's almost-DNA-gene instinct to kill the enemy as the only way to be secure. Here's the pattern: target the enemy, dehumanize the enemy, kill the enemy. And if needed,torture the enemy since he or she is not human anyway. I invite dialogue with both presidential candidates on this issue of the death penalty: no matter how restricted your criteria for use of the death penalty, e.g., that it should only be applied for crimes so heinous that the full outrage of the community must be expressed. The problem with this criterion is that outrage of the community is very uneven, very weighted around the murder of some citizens and almost nonchalant about the murder of others. Thirty two years of experience have taught us that outrage is almost always around the death of white people, seldom over the death of poor people or people of color, no matter how terrible the crime.

...Conversations about the death penalty across this country have led me to understand that there is a deep religious underpinning to our support for the death penalty and for war against foreign enemies. It's because many of us still have an image of a God who demands "eye for an eye," a God pleased with sacrifice... There are contradictory images of God found in the Bible. On which one will we model our lives? Jesus forgave his executioners and showed us the way of compassion, showed a way of inclusive love that calls no one enemy, showed how we must forgive those who hurt us. He once said to a young lawyer and he says to us today: "Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy, not sacrifice..."

...No matter how terrible a person's crime, no human being should be tortured; no human being should be killed. All religions teach that life is sacred, but Jesus showed preferential love for the "least of these." Spiritual paths always involve change of attitudes, conversion of life. Is it not time for us as a nation to be converted from our pursuit of violence to become a nation that embraces dialogue and diplomacy with our adversaries? Are we ready to build a Peace Academy alongside our military academies?

...Oh, say, what do we see in the dawn's early light ? Bombs bursting in air? Or a newly budding America, respectful of human rights, refusing violence, actively engaged in diplomacy with our adversaries? I've brought mediation books with me, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents. I invite you to read them and to join me in abolishing government killing on our native soil and in inaugurating new ways to cherish and protect our Mother Earth. O God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.