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Thursday, October 29, 2009


Tennessee Judge Makes History on Cost Ruling

A new development in the widely publicized trial of Lemaricus Davidson, found guilty this week of the brutal murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom in Knoxville: Judge Richard Baumgartner ruled today for the first time in Knox County judicial history that he will instruct Davidson's jury that it is more expensive to execute Davidson than to give him life without parole.

Baumgartner will cite a 2004 cost study by the Tennessee Comptroller. This is the same study cited by the Comptroller's office in testimony provided to the Death Penalty Study Committee in 2007 in which the comptroller admitted that the 2004 study did not actually account for the full cost of the death penalty system to taxpayers as there is no centralized way to track the data in Tennessee. In other words, the 2004 study does not even get at the actual costs and still shows the death penalty is more expensive.

Regardless of what the jury decides in this case, jurors and citizens alike need to understand that if Davidson receives a death sentence, far more money will be spent on him than if he does not. The question we must ask ourselves is, "With life without parole as an alternative in this case, would taxpayer money be better spent on assistance to victims' families and on effective crime-fighting measures that might prevent such tragedies in the future or on Davidson's execution?"

Read the story here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Former Texas Governor Changes His Mind on the Death Penalty

As I was driving to Memphis on Thursday for the Voices on the Death Penalty panel, I was listening to NPR. The topic was Texas Governor Rick Perry's decision to replace members of a state commission investigating the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 though national arson experts prior to his execution and more since, have stated that there was no arson in this case and that Willingham was wrongfully convicted and executed.

A surprising guest on the program was former Texas Governor and strong supporter of the death penalty, Mark White, who now has serious reservations about the continued use of the death penalty as a public policy. He stated, "There is a very strong case to be made for a review of our death penalty statutes and even look at the possibility of having life without parole so we don’t look up one day and determine that we as the State of Texas have executed someone who is in fact innocent." Governor White said that the Willingham case is one example “of why I think the system is so unreliable.”

I am encouraged by Governor White's acknowledgement that the system cannot be trusted to always get it right and that with less costly alternatives available, we do not need the death penalty. I hope other lawmakers are listening.

Listen to the story here.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Voices on the Death Penalty Panel a Powerful Experience

Nearly 120 people turned out on a rainy Memphis evening to attend Voices on the Death Penalty: A Dialogue from the Front Lines. For over an hour, attendees heard the powerful stories of those who have been directly affected by the death penalty and why they now are working to end this public policy.

Kathy Kent, a public defender in Memphis, shared her gut-wrenching journey of loss and continued healing since the murder of her brother, Kenny, in the Oklahoma City bombing. She shared her anger and pain but also her conviction that Timothy McVeigh's execution did nothing to bring her peace. In fact, she stated that it only brought the same pain she was experiencing to McVeigh's family--a family who had done nothing wrong.

Joyce House opened her presentation by saying, "When I have done such presentations in the past, I have always carried a picture of Paul with me. Now, I don't have a picture because I have him here!" And indeed, Paul Gregory House, the 132nd exoneree in the nation and the second in Tennessee, was at the panel sitting quietly near his mother in his wheelchair (Paul House pictured above with Joyce House and Stacy Rector) as she told about their frustrating experience of fighting his conviction for nearly 23 years before his release from death row.

Ron McAndrew captivated the audience with his journey from a strong death penalty proponent and warden of Florida State Prison--overseeing executions--to a consultant now working out his mental pain by talking about his experiences and his opposition to the death penalty. His story is profound, and his ability to carry you along with him on his journey makes an impression. Ron leaves listeners with a lot to consider about how the death penalty affects those who are asked to carry it out.

Finally, I gave a presentation about the death penalty in Tennessee--how it is unfairly applied, costly, and risks the execution of an innocent person. I also shared some about my personal journey with Steve Henley.

So many people had questions that we ran out of time, but we hope to replicate this event in other cities across the state. Thanks to our Memphis chapter and to Rhodes College for their fine work in pulling this event together.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


New Report Show that States Can't Afford the Death Penalty

"Thirty-five states still retain the death penalty, but fewer and fewer executions are taking place every year," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). "But the overall death row population has remained relatively steady. At a time of budget shortfalls nationwide, the death penalty is turning into an expensive form of life without parole." Dieter made these comments to CNN today with the release of a new report, commissioned by DPIC, on the cost of the death penalty.

The study found that death penalty costs can average $10 million more per year per state than life sentences. Increased costs include more security and guaranteed access to lengthy appeals.

In 2007, the Tennessee State Comptrollers office testified to the legislative Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty in Tennessee that the state has no way to know exactly what it is spending on the death penalty as it has no centralized way to track the data. Even so, a 2004 report by the Tennessee Comptrollers office still showed the death penalty system to be more expensive than one which utilizes life without parole as its maximum punishment. As Nashville attorney and author of Tennessee's death penalty statute stated in his own testimony to the Committee, "The death penalty in Tennessee is a luxury item in the budget."

With Tennessee having executed 5 people in the modern era and released 2 who spent more than 20 years each fighting their convictions, is this a policy that we can say is really working for us?

Released with the DPIC study was a privately conducted poll of 500 police chiefs showing that the death penalty ranked last among their priorities for reducing violent crime. Adding more police officers ranked first. Perhaps Tennessee could make such life saving additions to our police departments statewide if we freed up money wasted on the death penalty.

Read the full report here.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Voices on the Death Penalty Panel at Rhodes College

On Thursday, October 22 at 7:00 at Rhodes College in Memphis, a panel of speakers will share their perspectives on the death penalty. Each of these panelists has been directly touched by this issue in a personal way.

Paul and Joyce House will be there for their first time together speaking in a public forum. Paul was released from death row in 2008 after he served 22 years for a crime that new evidence (including DNA) demonstrated he didn't commit. All the charges against him were finally dropped in May 2009. His mother, Joyce, has been a tireless advocate for her son, speaking to audiences statewide, including many lawmakers, concerning Paul and the problems with Tennessee's death penalty system.

Kathy Kent will also share her personal journey as a murder victim's family member. She is a criminal defense attorney who lives and practices in Memphis, Tennessee, and has been representing indigent defendants for fifteen years. In 1995, Kathy's brother, Ken McCullough, lost his life in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was one of the eight federal agents for whose murders Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death and executed.

I will also be a member of the panel as director of TCASK (soon to be Tennesseans for Altneratives to the Death Penalty or TADP) but also as the spiritual advisor to Steve Henley, who I visited on death row for nearly 10 years before his execution in February. Having witnessed an execution, an experience I live with everyday, this issue is not only a policy and moral issue for me but a personal one as well.

The final panelist is Ron McAndrew who has spent his career in corrections. He began his career in Florida in 1978 and climbed the ranks to the position of Warden at Florida State Prison. In 1996, Mr. McAndrew oversaw his first execution followed by the execution of two other men, including Pedro Medina whose electrocution went awry causing Medina to catch fire. One year after this experience, Mr. McAndrew was transferred from Florida State Prison to the warden's position at the Central Florida Reception Center. For the past four years, Mr. McAndrew has worked as a prison and jail consultant.

I heard Ron speak last year at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference, and the entire room was spellbound. A longtime supporter of the death penalty, Ron's own journey within the death penalty system has led him now to oppose the continued use of the death penalty in our country. As a former warden, he, as much as anyone, understands the realities of violent crime in our communities but does not believe that the death penalty reduces that violence. In fact, the death penalty is only another form of it.

I hope any of you in the Memphis area will be in attendance for this extraordinary event. I can assure you the stories will be ones you won't soon forget.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


justice denied, justice delayed

The story of Cameron Todd Willingham, an almost certainly innocent man executed in Texas, continues to garner national attention. The latest turn of events in the continuing saga of this case only demonstrates the obvious desperation of Texas Governor Rick Perry to keep the truth from coming out.

In 2005, the state of Texas established a commission, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. Willingham's is one of the first cases the Commission reviewed. Noted fire scientist, Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation in mid-August and issued a scathing report. He concluded that the original investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific evidence for claiming an arson occurred and that they ignored evidence that contradicted their theory.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to present its findings in a recent public hearing. But, before the hearing could take place, Gov. Rick Perry replaced three commissioners on the board and appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new chairman of the commission. Bradley’s first act as chairman was to cancel the hearing. This decision to change the board structure so late in the process appears to indicate that Perry's restructuring was actually meant to thwart questions about Willingham’s 2004 execution. Read more here.

On October 2, even as the facts of the Willingham case continue to be revealed, two men were released from Oklahoma’s death row after serving almost 15 years. Yancy Douglas and Paris Powell became the 137th and 138th exonerees from death row when evidence of their wrongful conviction emerged.

You can go to for more information concerning these latest examples of justice delayed and justice denied.