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Friday, July 31, 2009


A Poet Mourns

On Wednesday's edition of NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross, poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno shares poetry from her new book Slamming the Door Open about the murder of her daughter, Leidy, in 2003. Leidy had just completed nursing school when an ex-boyfriend, angry about their break-up and the fact that Leidy caught him stealing her credit card information, broke into her apartment and strangled her with a telephone cord.

A TCASK board member who was traveling on Wednesday heard the broadcast and called me to say that I needed to hear the story. I finally got a few minutes to listen to it this morning. Kathleen is brutally honest about her own process and the feelings she experienced in the wake of her daughter's murder--feelings that she did not know she was capable of prior to this tragic loss.

I hope you will take the time to listen to this interview and to hear these moving and soulful poems. For those of us who have never experienced the tragedy of a murder in our families, Kathleen's poetry opens up the depth of that pain and hurt in a powerful way for others to glimpse and touch, if only tangentially.

Read the story or hear the interview here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


One Year Later: A Journey of Healing

One year ago yesterday, Jim David Adkisson entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville during a children's musical performance and began shooting. Before he was finally tackled by a courageous member of the congregation, Adkisson had killed 2 people--Linda Kraeger and Greg McKendry, an elder who attempted to block him from shooting other people--and wounded six.

Adkisson claimed he was attacking "the liberals," particularly those who welcome gays and lesbians. Adkisson pleaded guilty to the rampage and is now serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. One year later, church members have not allowed Adkisson to dictate their response to this tragedy. They are not acting from a place of hate with a thirst for vengeance as he was. Instead,the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is a living witness to its faith in the power of love and inclusivity, moving other congregations to become more welcoming of gay and lesbian people while starting new churches along the way.

I am so grateful for the witness of communities of faith such as this congregation who, though violated and attacked, refuse to allow violence, hate, and fear to dictate their response to tragedy. Instead, they choose to celebrate life and to welcome others who might be targets of discrimination.

I hope we can all learn from their witness.

Read more about this story

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


December 2nd Execution Date Set for Tennessee Inmate Cecil Johnson

The Tennessee Supreme Court has set a December 2nd execution date for Cecil Johnson, an inmate who has served on Tennessee's death row for 28 years. Johnson was convicted of the 1980 armed robbery and murders of three Nashvillians, including a 12 year-old boy.

TCASK is currently creating a summary of this case for our website in order to give readers more information as to how the case unfolded. Ultimately, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death with no physical evidence, no murder weapon, no proceeds recovered from the robbery, and without the disclosure of key files by the prosecution putting testimony used against him in doubt. The State's case hinged on the testimony of two eyewitnesses as well as a "last hour" change of story by Johnson's own alibi witness for a promise of immunity by the prosecution.

TCASK will have much more to share concerning this case. Check our website for the summary in the next few days.

Click here to read more.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Two Recent Exonerations Bring the Number of Death Row Exonerees to 135

On Thursday, July 9th, Herman Lindsey of Florida became the 135th death row exoneree since 1973 after the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ordered his freedom. The Court determined that there was not enough evidence to convict him of murdering a Fort Lauderdale pawnshop worker in 1994. Lindsey’s exoneration was the 23rd in Florida since the reinstatement of the death penalty. The court ruled that the Broward County prosecutors needed to show there is "a reasonable and moral certainty that the accused and no one else committed the offense charged. It is not sufficient that the facts create a strong probability of, and be consistent with guilt. They must be inconsistent with innocence."

Only three days earlier, Ronald Kitchen was exonerated in Illinois when the state’s Attorney General dropped all charges against him. Kitchen and a co-defendant had been convicted of a 1988 murder, and Kitchen was sentenced to death. Kitchen confessed to the crime after being subject to interrogation by a police unit that used torturous tactics against suspects.

Kitchen’s case is yet another exoneration linked to disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. Kitchen had claimed that detectives under Burge’s command coerced him into confessing to the murders through torture, including hitting him in the head with a telephone, punching him in the face,striking him in the groin, and kicking him. Years after Kitchen’s conviction, Police Commander Burge was fired after the Police Department Review Board ruled that he had used torture. Burge currently awaits trial on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury in relation to a civil suit regarding the torture allegations against him.

Additionally, the case against Kitchen was weak at best, lacking physical evidence and with the prosecution's reliance on a dubious key witness. Kitchen served 21 years prior to his release.

Kitchen’s exoneration was Illinois’ 20th death-row exoneration. Florida and Illinois rank first and second in the United States, respectively, in death-row exonerations. Last week’s exonerations bring to four the number of death-row exonerations in the last two months. In mid-May, Paul House of Tennessee and Daniel Wade Moore of Alabama were also exonerated within three days of each other.

In 2007, Michael McCormick of Tennessee was found not guilty in a new trial after fighting his conviction for 20 years.

All of these cases highlight the grave risks of executing innocent people, risks that will persist in any human and thus imperfect system. With alternatives like life without parole, why do we continue to insist on the death penalty? How many innocent people have already been executed in this country because mistakes were made? Enough is enough.

Monday, July 13, 2009


FUSE (Families United to Share and Empower) Meeting

For most families, when a loved one dies, their communities provide needed care and support. However, for families whose loved one is executed or lives on death row, there is frequently no such outpouring. In fact, most of these families suffer in silence, rarely sharing the pain and feelings of isolation with which they struggle. This weekend TCASK held a gathering of FUSE (Families United to Share and Empower),a program TCASK is working to develop that hopes to provide support and resources for families of death row inmates and the executed.

A small group met to discuss the needs of families from the trial through the resolution of the case. Looking at the different perspectives concerning the death penalty system, two things are for certain: the families of those who are on death row are also caught up in this system, and each families' responses and needs are different.

TCASK hopes that this meeting will lead to a greater awareness of the suffering of these families and some ideas about how to begin to address some of their needs.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


Sixth Circuit Court Rules Against Harbison on Lethal Injection

Today the Sixth Circuit Court ruled against E.J. Harbison's challenge to Tennessee's lethal injection protocol holding that the U.S. Supreme Court's Baze decision, which upheld the constitutionality of Kentucky's lethal injection protocol, applies to Tennessee as well. Of the three judge panel making the decision, two affirmed the decision and the third dissented. The majority held that Tennessee's protocol is substantially similar to Kentucky's and therefore does not violate the Eighth Amendment.

However, in his dissent, Judge Clay articulates why this ruling is problematic.

Because the district court (which ruled in favor of Harbison) issued its
opinion before the Baze decision, the district court never had the
opportunity to receive and consider evidence in light of the Baze standard,
and it never rendered a judgement as to whether Tennessee's protocol complied with Baze. By failing to provide the district court with an opportunity to consider Tennessee's protocol in light of Baze, the majority effectively usurps the district court's role as a factfinder and decides an issue never presented to the district court: whether there are material differences between Kentucky's and Tennessee's lethal injection protocols.

What we know is that when Governor Bredesen asked for the Department of Corrections to revise its protocols in 2007, Corrections Commissioner George Little established a committee to review the protocol and make recommendations. The Protocol Committee made significant recommendations for changing the protocol, including eliminating the controversial three drug cocktail and moving to a one drug protocol. The Committee also found that the risk of the first drug, sodium thiopental's failing to fully render the inmate unconscious resulting in the inmate's enduring the excruciating effects of the following drugs, was more significant than previously thought, particularly since there is a lack of a check for consciousness before the administration of the next drugs. However, none of the recommendations made by the Protocol Committee to address these problems were accepted by Commissioner Little.

The fact remains that regardless of the protocols or methods of execution used in Tennessee, the state's death penalty system remains broken, a reality confirmed by the legislatively created Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty. The Committee determined that the death penalty in Tennessee is unfairly applied, more costly than life without parole, and risks the execution of an innocent person. The controversy over Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol represents merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the death penalty system.