Tennessee

Tennessee

Report Finds High Levels of Misconduct in Four Top Death Sentencing Counties

Four counties that rank among the most aggressive users of capital punishment in the United States have prolonged patterns of prosecutorial misconduct, according to a new report by the Harvard-based Fair Punishment Project. The report, "The Recidivists: Four Prosecutors Who Repeatedly Violate the Constitution," examined state appellate court decisions in California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee from 2010-2015, and found that prosecutors in Orange County, CAOrleans Parish, LASt. Louis City, MO; and Shelby County, TN—all of which currently face allegations of significant misconduct—ranked among the most prolific perpetrators of misconduct in their respective states. Orange and Shelby counties ranked 7th and 13th among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners in the U.S. as of January 2013, each having more individuals on their death rows than 99.5% of all counties in the country. In the midst of a scandal on an illegal, multi-decade practice of placing informants next to targeted prisoners to attempt to extract confessions from them, Orange County imposed more death sentences from 2010-2015 than all but five other U.S. counties. St. Louis City ranked 10th in executions from 1976-2012, and Orleans Parish has long been known for its prosecutors' failures to disclose exculpatory evidence to capital defendants, including three cases that have been the subjects of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The statewide misconduct rankings produced by the Fair Punishment Project show that these counties are outliers not only in their heavy use of the death penalty, but also in their patterns of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the types of misconduct found by appellate courts were withholding exculpatory evidence, improper arguments at trial, and hiding deals and favorable treatment offered to informants in exchange for their testimony. In one case from St. Louis, prosecutors: suppressed evidence in the death-penalty trial of Reginald Clemons that would have supported Clemons' claim that he confessed only after having been beaten by police; never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator; and presented testimony in a co-defendant's trial that another person had committed acts attributed to Clemons at his trial. Longtime prosecutor Nels Moss, Jr. also advised police officers to omit certain observations that were initially included in their reports. Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death, but was awarded a new trial—scheduled for 2018—because of this misconduct.

Federal Appeals Court Overturns Tennessee Death Penalty as a Result of Prosecutorial Misconduct

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the conviction and death sentence of Tennessee death-row prisoner Andrew Lee Thomas, Jr. on February 24, ruling that Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich had unconstitutionally withheld evidence that a key prosecution witness had been paid for her cooperation in the case and then elicited perjured testimony from the witness lying about the payment. Weirich is currently facing ethical charges from the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility arising out of misconduct in another murder trial, State v. Noura Jackson, in which the Tennessee Supreme Court found that Weirich had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense and had improperly commented on the defendant's decision not to testify. According to the court's ruling in Thomas's case, his former girlfriend, Angela Jackson, had provided "the only reliable testimony placing Thomas at the scene of the shooting." During trial, Weirich asked Jackson: "Have you collected one red cent for this?" Jackson replied, "No, ma'am. I have not." In fact, Jackson had been paid $750 by the FBI on behalf of the joint state and federal Safe Streets Task Force. Calling Weirich's failure to disclose the payment “egregious,” the court said the "prosecutor had a duty to disclose this payment rather than allow the witness to commit perjury by denying its existence." Shelby County, where Thomas was tried, is among the 2% of U.S. counties that account for a majority of all death sentences imposed in the United States. Its county prosecutors have been dogged by charges of misconduct. In 2014, Weirich defended the conduct of Tom Henderson, a veteran homicide prosecutor in her office who had been censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court for misconduct in the capital trial of Michael Rimmer after a judge had found that Henderson had made “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to the Court and defense counsel about the existence of exculpatory evidence, “purposefully misled counsel with regard to the evidence,” and withheld exculpatory evidence he was constitutionally required to disclose.

Former Tennessee Attorney General Supports Mental Illness Exemption

In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, former Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody (pictured) has expressed his support for a bill that would exempt people with serious mental illness from the death penalty. Cody, who later served as a member of the American Bar Association's Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Team, said that "as society's understanding of mental illness improves every day," it is "surprising that people with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, can still be subject to the death penalty in Tennessee." In his op-ed, Cody describes how cases with seriously mentally ill defendants differ from other capital cases: "In 2007, an ABA study committee, of which I was a member, conducted a comprehensive assessment of Tennessee’s death penalty laws and found that 'mental illness can affect every stage of a capital trial' and that 'when the judge, prosecutor and jurors are misinformed about the nature of mental illness and its relevance to the defendant’s culpability, tragic consequences often follow for the defendant.'" He also draws on his experience as the state's top prosecutor, saying, "As a former Tennessee Attorney General, I understand how horrific these crimes are and how seriously we must take capital cases. ...But in light of our increased understanding of mental illness, I believe that for those with documented mental illness of the most severe form at the time of their crime, the maximum punishment should be life in prison without parole." Tennessee is one of at least seven states in which legislators have introduced bills that would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty. Numerous legal and mental health organizations, including the American Bar Association, American Psychiatric Association, and National Alliance on Mental Illness, support excluding defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty.

At Least Seven States Introduce Legislation Banning Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness

Bills to exempt individuals with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty are expected in at least seven states in 2017. Legislators in Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia have either introduced such legislation or announced that they plan to. Six of the seven states have sponsorship from Republican legislators, indicating bipartisan support for the measures. The author of Indiana's bill, Sen. James Merritt (pictured, R-Indianapolis), says he supports the death penalty but draws a “bright line of distinction” around executing people with severe mental illness. There are some variations in the bills, but each creates a process in which a determination is made—usually by a judge—whether the defendant qualifies for the exemption. Some bills define serious mental illness by particular diagnoses, others by behavioral impairments in functioning. Qualifying diagnoses under the exemption typically included Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Defendants found to be suffering from severe mental illness would not be exempted from criminal responsibility, but would be subject to a maximum sentence of life without parole. Numerous mental health organizations have called for an exemption to the death penalty for individuals with severe mental illness. The measures have the support of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), and state-level coalitions of mental health advocates. In December 2016, the American Bar Association held a national summit and issued a white paper in support of a severe mental illness exemption. Several religious leaders also have spoken out in favor of the exemption. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, wrote an op-ed for The Virginian-Pilot in late January saying, "Their conditions affect many aspects of the legal process, impacting their appearance in court, the jury’s perception of ticks or socially inappropriate interactions, the defendant’s presentation of facts, and even their own admission of guilt. Indeed, studies have shown that defendants with severe mental illness are more likely to give a false confession. ...As a faith leader, I am compelled to advocate for compassionate and fair laws such as this." Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, called the bill "prudent and just."

Tennessee Death Row Prisoners Challenge Lethal Injection, Argue Protocol Would Break the Law to Carry Out Executions

Lawyers for 30 Tennessee death row prisoners argued before the state's supreme court on October 6 that Tennessee's lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Tennessee, which has not carried out an execution since 2009, intends to use a one-drug protocol of pentobarbital that it says would be obtained from a compounding pharmacy. The prisoners argue that the Tennessee Department of Correction's lethal-injection protocol creates an unconstitutional risk of lingering death and requires physicians to illegally prescribe controlled substances. Their lawyers argue that states may not break their own laws or federal statutes to carry out executions and that physicians who prescribe pentobarbital for executions would be violating federal drug laws. Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Passino said, "You cannot perform a lawful act in an unlawful manner. To the extent that TDOC is doing that, the protocol is unconstitutional." Justice Sharon G. Lee raised concerns about the possibility of botched executions like those that have occurred in other states, in which prisoners writhed and gasped during prolonged executions. Associate Solicitor General Jennifer Smith, arguing on behalf of the state of Tennessee, conceded that "there is no guarantee that an execution is not going to have a problem." Justice Lee asked Smith further, "So how do we know our execution would not be botched?" Smith responded, "We don't."

Tennessee Legislature Unanimously Passes Bill to Require Preservation of Biological Evidence in Capital Cases

On April 13, the Tennessee House of Representatives joined the Tennessee Senate in unanimously approving a bill that would mandate the preservation of biological evidence in cases involving a death sentence. The House voted 94-0 in favor of the bill after the Senate had passed the bill on April 4 by a 31-0 vote. If the governor signs the bill, such evidence must be held until the defendant is executed, dies, or is released from prison. Destruction of evidence will be handled as criminal contempt. At the House hearing for the bill, Ray Krone (pictured), who was exonerated from Arizona's death row and now lives in Tennessee, testified to the importance of DNA evidence. Krone was exonerated after DNA from the victim's shirt was tested and was found to match neither the victim nor Krone. "That DNA not only saved my life.” Krone said. “It also, because it was preserved by the Phoenix Police Department, it identified the true murderer.” DNA testing also played a key role in the Tennessee death row exonerations of Paul House and Michael McCormick. A March 2007 Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project (now the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project) had found that Tennessee death penalty law failed to comply with ABA recommendations on the collection, preservation, and testing of DNA and other evidence. The ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project has found that only 2 of the 14 states whose death penalty procedures it assessed complied with the ABA recommendations on preservation of biological evidence in death penalty cases.

One Year After Botched Execution, Many States Still Haven't Resumed Executions

On July 23, 2014, Arizona's execution of Joseph Wood was botched, taking nearly two hours from the time the state began injecting him with lethal drugs until he was finally pronounced dead. Witnesses reported that Wood gasped more than 640 times during the course of the execution, and an official report later revealed that he was injected with 15 doses of the execution drugs. Michael Kiefer, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, who witnessed Wood's execution, described it, saying, "He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed." Arizona used a combination of midazolam, the drug recently reviewed by the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross, and hyrdromorphone, a narcotic. Wood's lawyer, Dale Baich, describing the execution, said "The experiement failed." The same drug protocol had been used in Ohio's botched execution of Dennis McGuire earlier in 2014 and witnesses to an October 2014 execution by Florida using midazolam reported that the death took longer than usual. In the year since Wood's execution, Arizona has not carried out any executions as a stay issued by a federal judge remains in place. In that time, Oklahoma and Florida have used midazolam in a total of three executions, with Charles Warner in Oklahoma saying "My body is on fire." Both states temporarily put executions on hold while the Supreme Court review was underway, but indicate they intend to resume executions now that the use of midazolam has been upheld. An Oklahoma federal court has scheduled a trial for 2016 on Oklahoma's use of midazolam. All other executions since Wood's have used a one-drug protocol of pentobarbital, likely obtained from compounding pharmacies, since the primary manufacturer of the drug opposes its use in executions. Ohio delayed all executions until at least 2016 to review executions procedures, and executions in Tennessee are on hold because of legal challenges to its lethal injection protocols. Georgia is conducting an investigation into problems with execution drugs and has not set new execution dates as a result.

NEW VOICES: Republican and Democratic Legislators Critique Tennessee's Death Penalty

In two separate guest columns for The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), four state legislators urged an end to the death penalty in Tennessee. State Representatives Steve McManus (top left) and Mark White (top right), both Republicans, called capital punishment, "a lousy return on our investment." Estimating that Tennessee's death penalty is similar in costs to North Carolina's $11 million-per-year system, they listed some alternative uses for death penalty funds. "270 patrol officers. 361 state troopers. 228 detectives and criminal investigators. 110 new school buses. 239 teachers. Compensation for 367 crime victims and their families." They go on to raise concerns about the accuracy of capital convictions in Tennessee, which has executed six inmates and exonerated three. "Six-and-three isn't bad if you're playing football. It's not very good if you're deciding life or death." On the other side of the aisle, Democratic State Sen. Lee Harris (bottom left) and State Rep. Johnnie Turner (bottom right) called the death penalty, "broken," giving four reasons for their opposition to capital punishment. "First, we should be investing in infrastructure, schools, police and emergency services, and public transportation, among others...Second, executing an innocent person is an unacceptable risk...Third, the death penalty affects innocent people in other ways, too...the evidence shows that some people, when faced with the prospect of death, will falsely admit to taking a life to save their own...Fourth, we could be doing more for victims' families." They conclude, "In the end, the death penalty is a needless source of ongoing contention, and it takes up too much of our valuable time and resources while we're trying to work through all the other problems our criminal justice system is facing."

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