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Friday, February 26, 2010


Write-a-Thon at Rhodes College

Last night, students at Rhodes College hosted their first TADP write-a-thon as part of their “Justice Jam” event. Allison Dove, a senior at Rhodes, organized the write-a-thon and did a tremendous job. Our table was located in the “Lair,” a large building where students gather to eat and hang out. Thirty eight letters were written by Rhodes students to their local legislators asking them to support legislation to abolish the death penalty in Tennessee. We enjoyed lively and stimulating conversations among many students as to the public policy of the death penalty and how it works. The write-a-thon was also a great venue to introduce TADP and our work to the students at Rhodes. I was so impressed by the commitment and passion of many young people who are seriously engaged in fighting for social justice. We at TADP look forward to working more with Rhodes College as we together work to abolish the death penalty in Tennessee.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Kansas Falls One Vote Short in the Senate

Today, the Kansas Senate failed to repeal the death penalty with a 20 to 20 vote but demonstrated how far the state has come and how close it is to abolishing the death penalty. The bill would have repealed the death penalty, replacing it with life without the possibility of parole. It would not have affected the 10 men currently on Kansas death row.

Republican Senate Vice President John Vratil supported the repeal effort, citing studies demonstrating that the death penalty does not deter crime. He also cited figures that showed decreased murder rates in every state over the past two decades, regardless of whether the state had the death penalty or not.

Republican Senator Carolyn McGinn repeated the call for repeal with assertions concerning the exorbitant costs of the death penalty to cash strapped states: "It costs half a million dollars, or 70 percent more, to try a death penalty case than a non death penalty case and yet the state hasn’t executed anyone since 1965. We’re not executing anybody. Can we use this money to prevent future heinous, horrible crimes? Can we use it to solve cold cases that are up on the shelf for those families who don’t even know who murdered their family member?"

This close vote signals the continuing realization across the country that the death penalty is a failed public policy that takes resources and focus away from real crime prevention measures as well as the real needs of murder victims' families.

Thanks to all those in Kansas who worked so hard to educate and advocate for the repeal of the death penalty. This effort moves Kansas one step closer to abolition and inspires the rest of us to keep on keeping on!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Advocates Speak Out for Gaile Owens

Channel 5 News featured a story last night about the status of Gaile Owens' case and the increasing number people who support the commutation of her sentence. Owens, who is facing execution for the 1985 murder of her husband, was convicted and sentenced to death though the jury never heard testimony about the abuse she suffered or that she was willing to plead guilty for a life sentence. Because her attorneys believed that she would plead guilty, they spent only 2 hours preparing for her trial.

As more people are becoming familiar with the problems in this case, more people are speaking out for clemency. In particular, advocates for victims of domestic violence are publicly commenting on Gaile's situation, noting the lack of resources and help available for abused women at the time of her husband's murder.

It may be three or four weeks before the Tennessee Supreme Court rules on her case. At that time, either the Court will set an execution date or commute her sentence. The Governor has said that he will not get involved until the courts have completed their process.

TADP will keep you informed of the latest developments and provide you with actions to take once the Court rules.

See the Channel 5 story here.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Student Conference on the Death Penalty 2010

February 6 has come and gone, and the student conference that we have been preparing for came to fruition on Saturday with approximately 125 students, parents, and professors in attendance. We had an all-time high of 165 people registered, but we could not control the weather, and the snow and rain kept some people home—including our keynote, Diann Rust-Tierney. Despite the minor setback of our Washington D.C., snowed-in keynote, we kicked off the conference with a showing of The Empty Chair, a moving film that documents the responses of four families struggling with the murder of a loved one. Our day then proceeded with two rounds of well-attended workshops. Stacy led the workshop, Death Penalty 101, with the help of Michael McCormick, the 125th death row exoneree. Our own Denver Schimming and NAMI’s Dixie Gamble provided an informative and thought provoking workshop on mental illness and the death penalty, and our third workshop was led by Shane Truett, one of our SOS speakers. He shared his story about the murder of his brother and his journey from being a proponent of the death penalty to an opponent. All of these educational workshops gave students the opportunity to think hard about capital punishment and ask challenging questions.

After lunch, we heard from Amnesty International’s Southern Regional Director, Jared Feuer, who joined us from Atlanta, GA. He spoke about the death penalty in light of human rights, and used the case of Troy Davis to highlight the errors of the system in regards to innocent people being executed. The U.S. Supreme Court continues to wrestle with the question of whether or not it is unconstitutional to execute a convicted defendant who is actually innocent. Justice Antonin Scalia has does not believe that innocence alone is enough to overturn a death sentence:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

For more Scalia commentary, click here to read his dissent on the Troy Anthony Davis case that went to the U.S. Surpreme Court on August 17, 2009.

To finish the day-long conference, students had the opportunity to attend a lobby training workshop. Questions such as what is lobbying, what are different methods of lobbying, and more importantly, how does one do a visit with a legislator, were all addressed. For comic relief, Stacy and Denver entertained everyone with a role play of “what not to do in a visit.” There is never a dull moment with us, even during lobby training.

Now that the student conference is over, write-a-thons are approaching, and so is Justice Day on the Hill which will take place March 23. Stay tuned for more information.

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Friday, February 05, 2010


Gaile Owens' Attorneys Argue for a New Sentence

Today Gaile Owens' attorneys argued to the Tennessee Supreme Court that her execution date should not be set, and instead, that her death sentence be commuted to life.

Gaile was sentenced to death by a Memphis jury for hiring Sidney Porterfield to kill her husband in 1985. But, the jury never heard testimony concerning the severe abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband nor did the jury know that she was willing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

Gaile has expressed remorse for her husband's murder and is the only inmate in Tennessee prison history to receive a death sentence after accepting a prosecutor's offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Gaile is a model inmate at the Tennessee Prison for Women where she works as a clerk.

A recent review of nine similar cases featured in the Tennessean shows that over the past 25 years, six of the women in these cases have since received full probation or early parole, two others are serving life sentences but are entitled to parole hearings, and only one, Gaile Owens, is facing a death sentence after 23 years on death row.

Now the Tennessee Supreme Court will decide whether to commute Gaile's death sentence to life or set a date for her execution. If they decide to set an execution date, her last hope for clemency will be with the Governor.

We will keep you informed of developments in this case and ways that you can get involved to stop this execution. If Tennessee moves forward with its plans to execute her, she will be the first woman executed by the state of Tennessee since the execution of Eve Martin in 1820.

Gaile's case is yet one more indication of how broken the current death penalty system is. She went to trial with lawyers who were unprepared, recording only 2 hours of pre-trial investigation and no expert assistance--2 hours to prepare for a trial for this woman's life. The national standard is to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours investigating such a case before trial. Her case has moved through the entire appeals process without critical issues ever getting addressed. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has denied to hear her case, she has almost run out of options.

How can the case of a woman who is a victim of severe domestic abuse, was willing to plead guilty, had almost no representation at trial, and has always shown remorse for her actions move all the way through the appeals system with no remedy? Because the system is broken and cannot be trusted to determine who should live and who should die.

Let's hope the Tennessee Supreme Court will remedy this situation and commute Gaile's sentence to life. Stay tuned.

Read the Tennessean article here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


Counting the Cost

One year ago today at 1:00 a.m., the state executed my friend, Steve Henley. Steve had spent 23 years on Tennessee's death row for the murder of Fred and Edna Stafford, an elderly couple who lived near Steve's grandmother. Steve was convicted and sentenced to death based on the testimony of a co-defendant who made a deal and served only 5 years for his part in the crime.

Given all that Steve had been through over the years, he faced his death with dignity and truly was at peace in those hours and minutes before his execution. I remain grateful for that gift. Some people believe that Steve deserved to be executed for the crimes for which he was convicted. And certainly, the murders were horrid and the suffering of the Stafford family cannot be overstated. I hope that family can find some peace.

And yet, today as I reflect on my experience of last year, I am reminded of those hidden costs of the death penalty that are not often considered. Now, by costs, in this instance, I don't mean literal dollars, though study after study demonstrates that the financial costs of the death penalty system are exorbitant and far more expensive than a system which only utilizes life without parole. But, in this case, I am talking about the human costs that no one wants to talk about, the costs that no one wants to see.

I think of Steve's family today--elderly parents, two sisters, two children, four grandchildren, nieces and nephews. None of these people did anything wrong, and yet they suffered and still suffer the devastating pain that anyone suffers who loses a loved one to homicide. And not only did they suffer the pain of Steve's death, but they suffered for 23 years as they prepared for his death. One year later, the wounds are still gaping as they deal with the lasting effects of Steve's execution.

Then, there are those working in the Dept. of Corrections who we ask to carry out these executions while most of us are asleep. Now, having been there to witness an execution and seeing it with my own eyes, I have no doubt of the mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma that these individuals suffer as a consequence. You cannot witness such a thing, nevermind carry it out, without significant consequences. Former Warden at the Florida State Prison, Ron McAndrew, travels the country sharing his experience of carrying out executions in Florida and of the damage it did to him. He talks about his journey from solid supporter of the death penalty to someone who now advocates for alternatives to execution in order to help with his own healing.

Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, the fact is that Steve Henley is a free man today. For him, it is over. And yet, it is not over for the rest of us, is it?

It is not over for the Stafford family as no number of executions can ever repair the harm done to them when their loved ones were murdered. It is not over for the Henley family who suffer the mental, emotional, and physical consequences of the ordeal through which they traveled and the grief that they now bear. It is not over for the correctional officers, the Warden, the Commissioner, who are asked to carry out these executions on our behalf, strapping an individual down to a gurney, a person who they may have known for years, and kill him or her. And, it is not over for us. It is not over for us who continue to put our faith in violence to solve our problems or right our wrongs. Because no matter how we try, the violent act of an execution just does not fill the void. Violence doesn't have that power. Such a void is one that only the love of God and our community can ever begin to fill.

And so regardless of what we think or feel about Steve Henley today, let us all remember those living with the grim realities of the death penalty whose continued suffering is all too real and all too costly.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


Kansas Legislature Makes Progress Toward Repeal

On Friday, the Kansas Senate Judiciary committee voted 7-4 for a bill that would repeal the death penalty for crimes committed after July 1. The bill replaces the death penalty with the crime of aggravated murder which comes with a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The bi-partisan vote in the Judiciary sends the bill to the full Senate for discussion.

The movement in Kansas on this issue reflects a growing trend across the nation with states acknowledging that the death penalty is a failed public policy which is extremely costly, ineffective, and does not best serve the real needs of surviving family members of murder or the community. We expect to see more promising developments in other states as legislative sessions get underway.

Read more here.