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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The Year that Was

I am sitting in my office on Tuesday afternoon, December 23, and all the staff has left for the holiday. I am going through the piles of paper on my desk to be sure I haven't missed anything too monumental before I head home for Christmas.

And, I decided that I need to reflect for just a few minutes on the year that was. This year has been a bit of a roller coaster ride, but what's new for the work of abolition? TCASK's biggest achievement of 2008 has to be Paul House's release on July 2nd. Watching that van drive through the rows of barbed wire at DeBerry Special Needs facility and into the parking lot with Paul House sitting in the back seat, eating a candy bar and drinking a Pepsi, unshackled and wearing free world clothes--that is a sight that I won't soon forget.

After so many people worked for so long to secure his freedom, after an anonymous donor posted the bail money, to stand there in that parking lot and watch Paul ride off with Joyce toward home....home. Words cannot really describe it.

Christmas 2008 will be Paul's first Christmas with his family in 22 years. I give thanks to God and to all of you who helped get him home. What a gift!

I also want to reflect for a moment on my friend, Steve Henley, who is scheduled to be executed on February 4, 2009. I began visiting Steve almost 10 years ago through the Visitor on Death Row Program, long before I became the Executive Director of TCASK. I haven't written much about Steve since his date was set because I still can't believe this is really happening. I was with Steve's daughter yesterday for just a short time when she came by the office, and as tears rolled down her face when talking about her Dad, I had to look away for a minute. It was just too much raw pain for me to take.

Here at Christmas time, I think about lots of people. I think about Carolyn Muncey, the woman for whose murder Paul House has spent the last 22 years on death row. I think about Carolyn's family and what they have been through and all the Christmas's with her they have missed. I think about the brokenness of a system that would rather maintain a conviction at all costs than admit a mistake and seek the truth in how Carolyn Muncey died and who is responsible.

I think about Fred and Edna Stafford, the elderly couple who Steve Henley is convicted of killing. I think of their families at Christmas time and the empty places at the table where Fred and Edna would be sitting for Christmas dinner. I think about how senseless violence is.

And yet all the pain that these families have suffered somehow cannot justify the pain that the Henley family now suffers as they await Steve's execution. His family has committed no crime. To see Steve's grandkids grieve as they struggle to understand how their own state could kill their "Gramps." To see Steve's elderly parents--two hardworking and kind citizens of Tennessee--with tears rolling down their faces as they ask questions about what is happening with their son's case, my heart breaks open a little wider every day.

My prayer this Christmas is that we, as a people, find other ways to deal with the violence and grief around us, ways that do not inflict more of the same onto other families. As people of various faiths celebrate the light which comes into the world during this season, may we let that light lead us, coming out of the shadows and embodying a better way of living together. This is my prayer for all of us.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Stephen Michael West's Appeal Denied

Tennessee death row inmate Stephen Michael West has had his appeal denied by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. "A panel on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati revealed Thursday it has ruled against Stephen Michael West, who has been on death row since 1986 for fatally stabbing Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, in Union County, which is in northeast Tennessee."

"West's attorneys argued that the judge erred by refusing to admit evidence that could have placed responsibility for the crimes on another man, that the trial was prejudiced by prosecutorial misconduct and that he received ineffective representation during the sentencing phase."

Read the rest of the article by CLICKING HERE.


Thursday, December 18, 2008


The Wall Is Beginning to Crumble

Yesterday, abolitionists across this country and the world, celebrated the 1 year anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey. On December 17, 2007, New Jersey became the only state to abolish the death penalty legislatively and the first to abolish the death penalty since 1965. Because of the hard work and dedication of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty led by Celeste Fitzgerald as well as the national abolitionists, legislators, and Governor Jon Corzine, New Jersey has demonstrated that the promises of the death penalty system are hollow and that alternatives are better for murder victims' families, for law enforcement, for public safety, and for citizens who care about fairness and accuracy.

And now, Maryland is one step closer to abolition as well with the recommendation of repeal by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. During its study, the Maryland Commission found a number of troubling factors such as
  • Racial disparities within the system
  • Jurisdictional disparities within the system
  • Costs which are substantially higher than a system with life without parole as the maximum sentence
  • Effects of capital cases are more detrimental to victims' families than the effects of life without parole
  • Despite the advance of forensic science and DNA testing, the risk of executing an innocent person still exists
  • No persuasive evidence that the death penalty deters crime

These realities have been highlighted by the abolitionist community for years, and I applaud the Commission for weighing the evidence and voting for repeal. The facts simply do not support the continuation of this broken system.

What I also find to be interesting about the findings of the Maryland Commission is that they are practically identical to the testimony given in Tennessee. However, in Tennessee, only a few reforms are being recommended. Why? How can two states with very similar findings make such different recommendations?

Hopefully, the Tennessee Committee will issue a full report in January highlighting all of its findings. However, anyone can go back and watch all of the hearings which can be linked from our website by clicking on the legislation tab. I assure you that in all the hours of testimony, you will hear the exact same evidence indicting the Tennessee system as was heard in Maryland.

With Tennessee's horrific budget shortfall and continued problems with health care and education, I find it terribly irresponsible for the state not to take a hard look at scrapping the current death penalty system. If citizens truly understood the facts, I strongly believe a majority would favor abolition. Though politicians fear a backlash from such a move, it did not happen in New Jersey. A majority of Tennesseans polled in 2007 already acknowledge that the death penalty system here has big problems, and I believe, if given the data, a majority would make an informed decision in favor of abolition.

As we move into 2009 with a new legislature and a dire economic landscape, I hope that Tennesseans will be more willing to voice their concerns to the legislature and support abolition. Can you imagine if Tennessee became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty? What would that say about our commitment to fairness, to fiscal responsibility, and to providing victims' families with a swift and sure sentence like life without parole. I hope that we can continue to put our emotions aside, and just look at the facts. The wall of the death penalty is crumbling. It is just a matter of time.

Read the Maryland Commission's report here

Monday, December 15, 2008


Maryland Commission Votes for Repeal

The Maryland Commission to study capital punishment voted 13-9 in favor of repealing the death penalty.

"Its report to the General Assembly outlines the commission's findings after listening to 35 hours of testimony over five months, including the determination that it is possible to execute an innocent person and that racial and jurisdictional biases play into the application of the death penalty."

"There is no good and sufficient reason to have the death penalty," Chairman Benjamin R. Civiletti said at a news conference. Explaining the commission's recommendation of repeal rather than reform, he said, "There are so many faults, so many flaws within the system that we could not imagine ... ways in which to cure it."

Read the rest of this Baltimore Sun article by clicking HERE.


Saturday, December 13, 2008


2009 NCADP Conference

Join the staff of TCASK, your fellow Tennesseans, and anti-death penalty advocates from across the world in Harrisburg from January 22 – January 25, 2009. Registration and conference info can be found by CLICKING HERE.

TCASK’s Executive Director, Rev. Stacy Rector, and Organizer, Denver Schimming, will be facilitating workshops at this year's NCADP conference.

Click on the links provided on the NCADP Conference web page to register online.

TCASK will be leaving Nashville early Wednesday, January 21, and stopping in Bristol, TN for an educational event. If you are interested in attending, call or email TCASK at (615) 256-3906 or


Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Gary Cone, Gaile Owens, EJ Harbison

Gary Cone

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Cone v. Bell. Gary Cone, the defendant, is currently on Tennessee's death row for the 1980 murder of an elderly Memphis couple. There is no doubt of Cone's guilt. However, Cone's defense has uncovered serious allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, including the withholding of critical evidence for Cone's defense.

"You're saying that the lawyer, the trained lawyer for the government, who knew this information and knew the defense -- just what? Just overlooked it by accident? Just what?" Breyer demanded.

The evidence in question was whether or not Cone was a drug user. Cone's initial defense and mitigation in the sentencing phase was predicated on his drug abuse. The prosecution argued that he was not a drug user despite holding evidence, including statements from law enforcement and the FBI that validated his drug abuse. "Cone's attorney, Thomas C. Goldstein, told the justices that the evidence was key to his client's insanity defense or could at least be presented as a mitigating circumstance that would keep him from being put to death."

Personally, I am not at all surprised by the arguments that made justices "exasperated." Time and time again we learn of significant prosecutorial misconduct in the course of seeking death sentences. Cone's case came out of Shelby County which accounts for a disproportional 40% of our death row. Even more troubling to me is that appeals courts, which serve as an "audit" of previous rulings, did not weed this out. "When Cone tried to present the evidence in a new round of appeals, Tennessee courts mistakenly said it had been considered and rejected."

Read more coverage of this case from the Washington Post and NPR.

Gaile Owens

"The first woman ever to be sentenced to death in Tennessee is a step closer to execution Tuesday after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied her habeas petition in a 2-1 decision. Nashville-based Judge Gil Merritt filed the dissenting opinion."

"Owens argued for relief before the Sixth Circuit on grounds that she received ineffective assistance of counsel when trial counsel failed to adequately investigate her background and failed to overcome the state’s hearsay objection to one of her penalty-phase witnesses; the state violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to turn over letters between her deceased husband and his paramour; and the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering, as mitigating evidence, testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in return for receiving a life sentence."

The Nashville Scene blog, Pith in the Wind, also laid out the three key issues. "She received jaw-droppingly ineffective assistance of counsel, the state withheld crucial exculpatory evidence, and the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence."

"Stacy Rector, executive director of the anti-death penalty Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killings (TCASK), told The City Paper in response to the ruling that she was not happy with the decision.

“I am very disappointed by the 6th Circuit court’s decision in the case of Gaile Owens," Rector said adding "the death penalty in this case is grossly disproportionate considering that Ms. Owens was willing to plead guilty and spend the rest of her life in prison for this crime; but, because her co-defendant wouldn’t plead, the case went to trial. Her attorneys spent only two hours of pretrial investigation and no hours — literally zero hours — preparing for her sentencing hearing.”

"Rector also pointed to a Monday recommendation from the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty that the Tennessee General Assembly create an independent commission to oversee capital defense in Tennessee based on the “woefully inadequate defense many capital defendants receive at trial.”

“The case of Gaile Owens is but one more example of this problem,” Rector said."

Read the rest of this City Paper article by CLICKING HERE. Read the rest of the Nashville Scene blog by CLICKING HERE.

EJ Harbison

Governors nationwide that are for and against the death penalty are backing Tennessee death row inmate, EJ Harbison. Harbison's case is currently before the US Supreme Court. "Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is a Democrat who supports the death penalty. Former Gov. Richard Celeste is a Democrat who opposed it. Both have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of a death row inmate from Tennessee seeking a federally funded lawyer to help with his clemency request.

"The issue before the court is relatively narrow: Does an existing federal law that authorizes funding for death row inmates' lawyers also cover state clemency hearings?"

"The Tennessee public defender's office said it didn't have the resources to represent Harbison in a clemency request. So he asked for a federally appointed lawyer. Federal and district appeals court judges said the law doesn't authorize such funding."

Read the rest of this article by CLICKING HERE.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008


More Recommendations from the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee

During a three hour meeting yesterday, the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty worked through more issues and produced more recommendations. The most dramatic of the recommendations made yesterday was the approval of legislation to recommend that the Tennessee General Assembly create an independent commission to oversee capital defense services in Tennessee. This commission would be charged with training attorneys and setting standards for those representing defendants in capital cases, monitoring workloads and performance, determining necessary defense services and resources, setting compensation rates, and recruiting qualified attorneys to serve as appointed counsel.

Senator Doug Jackson in his support of this recommendation stated, "Are we seriously going to say that capital defendants in Tennessee are getting good representation when attorneys appointed to defend these cases actually lose money and can't pay their light bills?"

Tom Lee, Committee member appointed by the Governor, stated, "What we have in Tennessee is a system that doesn't work very well for anyone."

With this recommendation, the Committee acknowledged that the current death penalty system in Tennessee, particularly as it impacts indigent defendants, is absolutely inadequate and unfair and makes Tennessee vulnerable to the execution of innocent people.

Other recommendations which the Committee endorsed:

  • an open file discovery policy which allows defense attorneys access to all the information concerning a case (such as is currently practiced by Davidson County's District Attorney's office), ultimately limiting the number of appeals that defendants are able to file

  • the creation of another study committee to examine exempting those with severe mental illness from the death penalty

  • maintaining the current review of the Criminal Court of Appeals for all capital cases prior to review by the Tennessee Supreme Court

The Committee will meet again to create a report summarizing its findings over the past 14 months. TCASK will keep you informed of what will likely be the last meeting of this historic Committee when we have that information.

As citizens of Tennessee, we must now demand that our lawmakers take these recommendations seriously and act to remedy the problems. If this new legislature chooses to ignore the Committee's findings and recommendations while the state continues to execute people, then the state of Tennessee will be callously and recklessly ignoring their own Committee findings that the system is seriously flawed. Tennesseans deserve better. Let's hope the legislature is paying attention.

Read more here.

And here

Monday, December 08, 2008


Man Receives Federal Death Sentence

Rejon Taylor joined 50 other inmates nationwide as a rare federal death sentence was handed out. Taylor was convicted of the abduction and murder of an Atlanta restaurant owner, Guy Luck. The case was made federal because the victim was taken across state lines into Tennessee. This case was the first federal death penalty case in East Tennessee. The jury's conviction was made official by U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier.

Read more about the case by clicking HERE.

The Chattanooga Free Times Press was recently contacted by one of the jurors with some grave concerns. "Everage Holloway, who sat through the 10-week federal death penalty trial of Rejon Taylor, said he contacted the newspaper because he was concerned that fellow jurors had made up their minds to sentence the 24-year-old to death out of “fear” and the desire to “make an example of him.” Read about this story by clicking HERE.

Mr. Holloway said that, if he had been one of the 12 jurors who actually deliberated, the jury would “still be hung up” on the final punishment since he did not believe Mr. Taylor acted with premeditation when he killed his victim. Prosecutors had to prove premeditation to make the death penalty a legal punishment.

Mr. Holloway also disclosed that he and other jurors talked about evidence and witness testimony before being released to deliberate, a clear violation of jury conduct rules. Mr. Taylor’s defense lawyers said that could prompt a new trial or help to overturn the death sentence those same jurors handed down Oct. 21.

Two other jurors confirmed Mr. Holloway’s statements."

These facts could prompt a retrial for Rejon Taylor.

"According to veteran trial attorney John C. Cavett, instances of jury misconduct have prompted new trials before, but he said he wasn’t sure whether possible jury misconduct in Mr. Taylor’s case “rises to that occasion.”


Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Death Penalty Study Committee Makes Recommendation

The Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty met on December 1 for several hours to begin voting on recommendations to the legislature. Though much was discussed, disappointingly, not much was recommended.

The only recommendation which made it out of the Committee on Monday was a recommendation to create a state policy asking that law enforcement agencies record custodial interrogations. Though a step in the right direction, the recommendation is not a "law" but a "policy" which means that if recording does not occur, the interrogations are still admissible in court. The provision in the recommendation which would have instructed the trial judge to inform the jury that a recorded interrogation is required by statute was struck by the representative of the DA's conference without much discussion. This was disappointing.

The Committee also discussed recommending the exclusion of those deemed to be severely mentally ill at the time a crime is committed from a death sentence. This recommendation would be exactly like the current law excluding those with mental retardation from death. Those with severe mental illness found guilty of a crime could still receive life without parole but not death.

A few Committee members voiced concerns about identifying those with severe mental illness and how difficult that process could be. Unfortunately, Sita Diehl, a Committee member and representative for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was not even able to complete her presentation (which she had already given the the Promptness subcommittee) before the Committee left the topic. No vote was taken on the recommendation.

My hope is that this recommendation could be reconsidered at the next meeting and a vote taken. Though I understand the concerns with determining severe mental illness, there are clear parameters to guide that process, and we have found a way to do so for those with mental retardation.

Though I applaud the Committee for its work, I am deeply concerned about all the issues which have not been discussed and the lack of organization to this whole process. The American Bar Association's Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report released in May 2007 outlines 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate death penalty system of which Tennessee fully complies with 7.

The process the ABA team took in producing this report took three years. This Study Committee has had 14 months with meetings held sporadically during that time frame. If only a few recommendations are made, this Committee will not have fulfilled its charge to examine all aspects of Tennessee's death penalty thoroughly and completely, leaving the state vulnerable to and unfair system which has the potential of executing the innocent.

Without a full report on the findings of this Committee, Tennesseans will continue to be in the dark about the scope of the system's problems. I hope that we can demonstrate to this Committee in what may be their final meeting next week, Tennesseans deserve to know how broken this system really is.