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Tennessee Judge Overturns Capital Conviction Because of Undiscovered Evidence

On October 12, Tennessee Judge James Beasley Jr. (pictured) overturned the conviction and death sentence of Michael Rimmer because critical evidence, not presented at his trial, throws doubt on Rimmer's guilt. The court ruled that Rimmer’s "overburdened" trial lawyers repeatedly failed to uncover evidence that two other men were seen at the victim's last location around the time of her disappearance, and both had blood on their hands.  One of the men was already wanted in connection with another stabbing.  Moreover, one of the men was reportedly carrying what looked like a heavy object wrapped in a comforter and loaded it into the trunk of a car. The court found that the lead prosecutor in the case compounded the injustice by making “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to Rimmer’s defense lawyers, denying the existence of such evidence. The court ordered a new trial for Rimmer.


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Former Tennessee Death Row Inmate Walks Free After 27 Years

On June 1, former Tennessee death row inmate Erskine Johnson (pictured; now known as Ndume Olatushani) was freed after serving nearly 27 years in prison, 19 of which were spent on death row. Johnson, who maintained his innocence throughout the process, was sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of a grocer in Memphis. In 2004, he was resentenced to life in prison after the state Supreme Court found that prosecutors did not disclose important information to the defense. In December 2011, Johnson was awarded a new trial by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in light of new information indicating state’s witnesses may have been motivated to protect other suspects.  If the jury had known of this motive, it could have weakened the witnesses’ credibility, and might have resulted in a different verdict.  Johnson entered an Alford plea (a guilty plea in which the defendant accepts that the weight of the evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict, but still maintains his actual innocence) to second-degree murder, in exchange for a sentence of time already served.  Johnson is now 54, having lived half his life incarcerated.  Prison officials called him an exemplary prisoner.


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BOOKS: "The Inferno: A Southern Morality Tale"

A new book, "The Inferno: A Southern Morality Tale," by Joseph Ingle, chronicles the compelling story of Philip Workman, who was executed in Tennessee in 2007. The author, a minister of the United Church of Christ who has spent decades working with those on death row, served as Mr. Workman's pastor and tells the story from his own viewpoint, as well as those of others familiar with the case. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, called The Inferno "the most detailed, intimate and complete look at a death row prisoner that I have encountered."  Workman's case gained attention because of serious doubts about his guilt. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, who later admitted he was not present at the scene of the crime. Sr. Prejean said, "This is a remarkable book . . . that will leave your soul transformed." The book will be released April 2 and is available for pre-order through Amazon.com.


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Federal Court Overturns FDA's Approval of Foreign Shipments of Lethal Injection Drugs

Judge Richard LeonOn March 27, a federal District Court held that foreign-manufactured sodium thiopental was improperly approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in executions.  Judge Richard Leon (pictured) of the District Court of the District of Columbia ordered any correctional departments in possession of the drug to return it to the FDA. The ruling granted summary judgment in favor of a lawsuit filed by death row inmates in Arizona, California, and Tennessee against the FDA. Those states, along with several others, had obtained sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used in lethal injections, from foreign sources after the sole U.S. manufacturer ceased production. The inmates contended "that unapproved foreign thiopental will fail to anesthetize plaintiffs properly during execution, causing conscious suffocation, pain, and cardiac arrest." According to Judge Leon, the foreign sodium thiopental "is a misbranded drug and an unapproved new drug" and "the FDA neither approved nor reviewed thiopental for safety and effectiveness." A January 2011 statement released by the FDA said "[r]eviewing substances imported or used for the purpose of state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of FDA's explicit public health role." The judge disagreed, saying "the FDA appears to be simply wrapping itself in the flag of law enforcement discretion to justify its authority and masquerade an otherwise seemingly callous indifference to the health consequences of those imminently facing the executioner's needle."


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