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Monday, December 21, 2009


Tennessee Death Row Inmate, Perry Cribbs, To Get New Sentencing Hearing

Today the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that death row inmate, Perry Cribbs, is entitled to a new sentencing hearing, reversing his death sentence and remanding the case back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing. Perry Cribbs has been on Tennessee's death row for 15 years.

In November 1994, Perry Anthony Cribbs was convicted of killing Linda Harris in Memphis, Tennessee, with no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Cribbs' conviction was based on the questionable eyewitness identification of Harris' husband and the unreliable testimony of Cribbs' then mentally ill, drug addicted girlfriend. Because Cribbs' attorneys failed to investigate his case, the jury never heard testimony from an alibi witness or a witness who had information that others, including Mrs. Harris' husband committed the crime. The jury never heard from Linda Harris' family and friends who knew that Harris' husband had motives to have her killed.

On February 12, 1994, two days before Cribbs' arrest, a Shelby County jail inmate named James Parker contacted Memphis homicide detectives and told them that he was present when a man he identified as Sidney Harris asked a drug dealer to find someone to kill his wife. According to Mr. Parker's statement, Sidney Harris owed the dealer money.

Mr. Parker said he was also present days later when three men, who he identified by nicknames, talked about killing Linda Harris. They said they should have killed the husband too instead of only wounding him. The detectives assigned to the case did not follow up on the lead nor did Cribbs' trial attorneys ever attempt to contact Parker or anyone named in his statement. At the post conviction hearing, Mr. Parker stated that he served his time for the petty crime for which he was in custody and did not expect to receive a deal for providing information to the police. Other witnesses testified at the post-conviction hearing that Sidney Harris was involved in the sale of drugs.

Neither the state nor Cribbs' attorneys talked to the family and friends of Linda Harris, several of whom, at the post-conviction hearing, testified to the problems in the Harris marriage and about Sidney Harris' behavior before and after his wife's death. In the weeks before her death, Linda Harris wrote a letter to her sister expressing concern about what would happen to her daughter if something happened to her. Family members were aware that Linda Harris' life insurance was changed before her death and that there was a gun in the home. Sidney Harris did not attend his wife's funeral even though he had his doctor's permission to do so, and even Mr. Harris' own brother called police and told them that he did not think his brother was telling everything he knew about the murder.The police still never pursued Harris as a suspect, and again, Cribbs' trial attorneys never investigated Harris or talked to his brother, even though they were aware of his brother's statement.

One week before trial and with an incomplete investigation, Cribbs' lead attorney withdrew from the case due to illness, and second counsel took over. New counsel did not ask for a continuance in order to complete the investigation. Another attorney was appointed as co-counsel but did not have time to prepare before trial.

Perry Cribbs maintains that he is innocent of this crime and has no knowledge of Linda Harris' murder. This case is yet another demonstration of the problems that currently plague the death penalty system, including grossly inadequate representation at trial and faulty eyewitness testimony.

With no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, Cribbs received a death sentence. Thankfully, the Tennessee Supreme Court recognized the total ineffectiveness of his attorneys and granted him this new sentencing hearing. However, given the facts in this case, Perry Cribbs should be allowed to challenge his conviction with a new trial as well. This time Cribbs should have competent attorneys presenting all the evidence, evidence never considered by the jury. Without a new trial, too many questions remain.

Read more about this case here.


The Uneven Hand of Justice

John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, had a wonderful article in Sunday's Tennessean entitled "The Uneven Hand of Justice" about the Gaile Owens case in Tennessee.

Seigenthaler highlights the disparity in Gaile's sentence compared with similar crimes in Tennessee, particularly the case of Mary Winkler who served 67 days in a mental health facility after murdering her abusive husband in 2006. Of all the cases mentioned in the article, Owens' was the only defendant who was willing to plead guilty and take responsibility for her decision. Yet, she is the only one who faces execution.

In this case, the judicial process broke down over and over again with the jury never hearing about the abuse Gaile suffered, with her trial attorneys spending only 2 hours preparing for her trial, and with the prosecutor withholding crucial evidence substantiating Gaile's claims of her husband's infidelity.

Regardless of whether one supports or opposes the death penalty, and given the facts in this case, Gaile Owens should not be executed. She has already served 23 years on death row and has taken responsibility for her tragic decision. How can Tennessee execute Gaile Owens when others in similar situations have received lesser sentences? The outcome of this case is no longer about Gaile Owens' bad decision but about our decision as a state. What will we choose? Let us choose accountability without the death penalty.

Read the article here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Gaile Owens Gets More Time

The Tennessee Supreme Court has given death row inmate, Gaile Owens, additional time to argue against the state setting her execution date. Her attorneys argued that a court never fully examined evidence that she was abused by her husband which might have resulted in a sentence less than death.

Read more here.


States Without the Death Penalty Have Lower Homicide Rates

An article in today's New York Times explains that, "the dozen states that have chosen not to enact the death penalty since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that it was constitutionally permissible have not had higher homicide rates than states with the death penalty." In fact, the 12 states without the death penalty have homicide rates lower than the national average.

The article also reports that "in a state-by- state analysis, The Times found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty."

This article focuses on states without the death penalty and includes commentary from insiders working within those state systems.

This article is a great read for anyone who wants to understand the failures of this system in preventing violent crime.

Read the article here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Attorneys Ask for More Time In Gaile Owens' Case

Gaile Owens' attorneys have asked for additional time in preparing a defense against the setting of an execution date in her case. The state has requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court set an execution date for Owens after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected her final appeal.

Owens was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of her husband. However, as in so many of these cases, the jury did not have critical mitigating evidence which could have resulted in a sentence of less than death, particularly evidence of the abuse that Gaile suffered at the hands of her husband and her acceptance of the state's plea offer before trial to life imprisonment.

Read more here.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Open File Discovery Op Ed in the Tennessean

I wrote an op ed that appeared in Sunday's Tennessean concerning Cecil Johnson's case and the lack of a statewide open file discovery policy in Tennessee. Such a policy would have almost certainly made a difference in the case's outcome.

Read the article here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


State Requests a Date for Gaile Owens' Execution

The Tennessean is reporting that the state of Tennessee has officially asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to set an execution date for Gaile Owens, one of two women on Tennessee's death row. Owens was sentenced to death for the murder of her husband in 1986.

Read the article here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Ohio Moves to One Drug Lethal Injection Protocol

Ohio death row inmate, Kenneth Biros, became the first person put to death by a single drug lethal injection protocol when he was executed earlier today. The single drug injection took 10 minutes to cause the inmate's death but removes concerns about unnecessary suffering that currently accompany the three-drug cocktail used across the country.

Read more here.

Friday, December 04, 2009


A Season to Remember

Last night, our intern, Diana, and I attended the Governor and First Lady's annual "Season to Remember" event at the state Capitol. This event provides murder victims' families in Tennessee a very meaningful and important opportunity to hang ornaments on wreaths in memory of their loves ones. The wreaths are then displayed in the Capitol.

Each family hangs an ornament while the name of their loved one is read aloud. The families are personally greeted by the Governor and First Lady. I am always moved by this event. Sitting among all those grieving families is a bitter reminder of the toll that violence takes on so many people in our state.

Davidson County Deputy District Attorney General, Tom Thurman, was the featured speaker. General Thurman became emotional when talking about two cold cases that had been solved this year in Davidson County, the cases of Vanderbilt student Sarah Des Prez and the case of 9 year old Marcia Trimble. Both cases had been unsolved for more than 30 years.

As I heard General Thurman speak, I was moved by his dedication and compassion toward these families who had been waiting for so long to see their children's murderer brought to account. I also thought of one of our TADP supporters and participants in our "Sharing our Stories: Murder Victims' Families Speak" program, James, whose mother was murdered when he was only 12. Her case remains unsolved.

I thought of the state of Colorado which almost passed legislation to repeal the death penalty this year in order to use all the money saved by ending the death penalty to solve cold cases. With so many cases unsolved, it seems that the money we spend to pursue death in a few cases could be used to find dangerous people still at large in our communities and give grieving families the comfort of knowing that their loved one's killer is being held accountable.

Regardless of one's feelings about the death penalty, we would all do well to remember all the families and friends who will spend another holiday without their loved ones because of someone else's senseless act of violence.

I pray that all who mourn may know God's peace which passes all our understanding.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Ray Krone Visits Tennessee

Ray Krone, the 100th death row exoneree, spoke to a crowd of 200 at Belmont University and to 50 people at First Presbyterian Church in Cookeville yesterday, ironically the same day that the state executed Cecil Johnson. Krone's story is a powerful reminder of the flaws of the death penalty system and why the death penalty is not worth the risk.

We will give you more information about Ray's visit in a later blog, but I wanted everyone to see the great story that Fox News 17 did on the Belmont event. Watch it here.


Tennessee Executes Cecil Johnson

On Wednesday morning, December 2, Cecil Johnson was executed by the state of Tennessee after spending 28 years on Tennessee's death row. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of Bobbie Bell, Jr., Charles House, and James Moore in the 1980 robbery of Bell's Market in Nashville.

As with so many other capital cases, Johnson's case was fraught with problems. At the trial, two eyewitnesses identified Johnson as the perpetrator as did a customer who entered the market during the crime. A friend of Johnson, Victor Davis, who initially provided Johnson with an alibi, changed his testimony less than one week before trial and incriminated Johnson in exchange for immunity. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death with no physical evidence, no murder weapon, and no robbery proceeds recovered.

Initially, Davis, Johnson's alibi witness, placed Johnson in, or at least, on his way back from Franklin, during the time of the robbery. Davis' account, first given to an investigator for the Public Defenders' Office on July 8, 1980, was significantly corroborated by a totally neutral, third party witness. Defense counsel disclosed Davis as an alibi witness months before trial, and prosecution investigators interviewed him at length. Davis stood by his account.

Up until January 2, 1981 (eleven days before trial), the State asserted that it had disclosed all of its witnesses, as procedure required. On that date, however, the State disclosed the names of fifteen new witnesses. With one exception, they turned out to be minor witnesses, but the late disclosures adversely affected the defense’s final trial preparations. The one exception was a young woman named Debra Smith, who claimed to know Cecil Johnson from school in the past. She testified at trial that she entered the market while the robbery was in progress, knew it was a robbery, saw Johnson behind the counter, calmly bought a soda, and did not report the robbery.

Even more significantly, on the Friday before trial was to begin on Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney General Sterling Gray directed certain Metro police officers to pick up Davis and bring him in for further questioning. This was accomplished shortly before midnight, and the officers brought Davis to the District Attorney’s Office, where he was confronted by the three trial prosecutors, a police detective, and a D.A. investigator. After some 3 hours (the most critical portion of which was spent alone with General Gray), Davis changed his story to one that now incriminated Johnson. Davis would no longer be a witness for the defense.

While all the reviewing courts have failed to acknowledge it, there is undisputed proof that General Gray, by his own subsequent admission, acted with the intent to eliminate Davis as a defense witness. It is also undisputed (based primarily but not exclusively on Davis’s own trial testimony) that General Gray threatened him with the death penalty if he testified for Johnson. No court has ever dealt with General Gray’s undisputed admission that he acted with the intent to eliminate Davis as a defense witness. (General Gray would subsequently be elected to the Davidson County Criminal Court bench in 1982. His judicial career ended in 1987 when he was caught on tape soliciting a bribe. Tragically, he thereafter murdered his ex-wife and committed suicide.)

The State’s case against Johnson turned on the seemingly positive eyewitness identifications of Bob Bell(the father of Bobbie Bell) and Louis Smith, as reflected in the State’s closing arguments. Central to Mr. Bell’s purported identification was the fact (undisputed) that Johnson was an occasional customer of the market and had been in a few days earlier. The defense contended that this acquaintanceship was the cause of Mr. Bell's honestly mistaken identification of Johnson, especially given the horror Bell had endured.

Prior to trial, Johnson's attorneys made numerous, specific requests for evidence that might cast doubt on the reliability of the eyewitness identifications. The State claimed that nothing of the sort existed. However, in 1992, the State finally turned over the case file because of a change in the Tennessee Open Records Act. In the newly revealed files, a statement from Mr. Bell to a detective asserted that the gunman had “no facial hair.” Johnson had a mustache and a goatee at the time. Given the fact that Bell knew Johnson as a customer, and that at trial, Bell stated that he kept his eyes on the gunman’s face for the entire duration of the robbery (which lasted several minutes), the fact that Bell initially described the gunman as having no facial hair was very significant and consistent with the defense theory of honest mistake. The file also contained Louis Smith's contemporaneous statement to a police officer that he did not even see the gunman’s face, as well as two other similar statements by Smith to two other officers. Had these statements been turned over before trial, the prosecution could not have presented Mr. Smith as a serious eyewitness identification witness.

The withholding of this exculpatory evidence had the effect of creating a substantial delay in this case benefiting the State of Tennessee and not Cecil Johnson. By the time Johnson's lawyers were finally able to get this case heard in federal court, it was subject to the “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”(AEDPA) passed in 1996 which limited the material the courts could review. Even so, one of the three judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who heard Johnson's case issued a vigorous dissent, writing that Johnson's case, “is not even a close one.” Two U.S. Supreme Court Justices sparred over whether or not to issue a stay for Johnson given the extreme delays in the appeals process. Read more here.

Johnson's case highlights the grave problems with the reliability of eyewitness testimony and the lack of adequate safeguards to ensure such identifications are as reliable as possible. Studies have demonstrated that faulty eyewitness identifications are a leading causes of confirmed wrongful convictions.

And yet, even with all these problems, the Governor nor the courts intervened to stop the execution.

On December 1, TADP held services and vigils around the state to remember all victims of violence and to witness against executions. Over 80 people gathered at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in the cold and drizzle to join in lighting candles, remembering all those devastated by murder and to say "no more of this."

Though the execution took place, those of us who are committed to abolition will keep up the work for as long as it takes to demonstrate that we do not need the death penalty and that it diminishes all of us whenever the state takes a life, no matter whose life it is.

Thanks to all of you for your patience during this last week as we have been experiencing computer problems. We did our best to get the word out about the events planned around the execution and appreciate your understanding.