Anne Holsinger 0:02 

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Our guest today is Tiana Herring, DPIC’s Data Storyteller, spearheading DPIC’s racial justice storytelling project. Thank you for joining us today on.

Tiana Herring 0:17 

Thank you for having me. 

Anne Holsinger 0:19 

The racial justice storytelling project is a series of reports exploring state racial histories and how they affect modern death penalty use. The project’s first report covered Oklahoma’s death penalty history, and the latest report on Tennessee was released on June 22, 2023. Tiana, could you start by giving us a brief overview of the Tennessee report? 

Tiana Herring 0:39 

The Tennessee report traces the histories of lynching, racial terror, and other patterns of state violence to the modern use of the death penalty in Tennessee today. So after a brief discussion of the history of the death penalty, we transition to talking more about the civil rights movement and how that all of these issues bring us to the present day use of the death penalty in Tennessee, and the modern issues that we are noticing, with capital punishment in the state. 

Anne Holsinger 1:08 

Why was Tennessee chosen for this second racial justice storytelling report? Why do you think it’s relevant to death penalty conversations right now.

Tiana Herring 1:16 

There’s a lot happening with the death penalty in Tennessee right now. Earlier this year, a state representative suggested hanging by a tree as an execution method and that comment alone indicates that there’s a lack of understanding about the history of the death penalty in Tennessee, and the racial dynamics of capital punishment as well. Additionally, Tennessee has a long history of lynchings, which have been shown to be statistically significant in understanding what states are sentencing people to death. 

Anne Holsinger 1:52 

Now that you’ve written two of these reports, are you beginning to see any trends that apply across the states? 

Tiana Herring 1:58 

Yes, one of the most important aspects of the death penalty, in both Oklahoma, Tennessee, and likely other states, is the concentration of racial bias in the death penalty. Specifically, we noticed that the race of the victim is extremely important. In Oklahoma for example, a study found that people charged with killing white females are 10 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if someone was charged with killing a minority male. Additionally, in Tennessee, when we were looking at the data, we noticed that 39% of homicide victims in Tennessee were white, but almost 75% of death sentences involved white victims. Preferential valuing of white victims and the death penalty is very reminiscent of the lynching days where people who were accused of harming white victims in particular, were more likely to be on the receiving end of some form of lethal punishment. 

Anne Holsinger 3:03 

Did you notice any trends related to the the geography of the death penalty within states and how specific jurisdictions might stand out? 

Tiana Herring 3:12 

Absolutely. In Oklahoma, we noticed that Oklahoma County and Tulsa County were the main users of the death penalty in the state and were therefore driving a lot of the death penalty trends we saw. And similarly in Tennessee, Shelby County, which is where Memphis is located, had the same pattern. These examples really underscored the issues with the arbitrariness of the death penalty, because, again, the vast majority of death sentences in these states are just coming from just a handful of counties, which raises the question of whether these counties just are more likely to have people that need to be sentenced to death, or if there are other factors at play. 

Anne Holsinger 3:57 

By contrast to those trends that you’re seeing across states, were there things that you noticed as unique about Tennessee? 

Tiana Herring 4:03 

Something we noticed is that Tennessee has a really long history of racial terror groups. The KKK, for example, originated in Tennessee, and they were not the only group that was focused on vigilante justice. There were a multitude of organizations like this that existed primarily to protect the interests of white community members. These racial terror groups, such as the KKK or the Nightcaps, which also started in Tennessee, were some of the main groups responsible for many lynchings that happened across the state. Even though some of these groups weren’t necessarily only focused on harming people of color, such as like, like the KKK was they still had many examples of specifically targeting black people who may have stepped out of their, what they consider to be the correct social order. One of the examples we included in the report was of a man who was lynched in Tennessee, after his wife reported being assaulted by a white man. And because she was a black woman, that was not allowed, even though legally, based on the law, she had a right to bring that issue forward. And so again, it just shows that the real focus of these groups was to ensure that their members, who were exclusively white men, were protected and could do whatever they wanted. 

Anne Holsinger 5:46 

As I read the report, I was struck by the discussion of voting rights and of Tennessee’s long history of disenfranchising black voters. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about the tent city in Fayette County in the mid-20th century, and also, how does blocking black voters connect to the use of capital punishment? 

Tiana Herring 6:06 

I was also struck by the story of the tent city whenever I first started doing my research, because I had never heard of this. What happened was in Fayette County, which is a majority black County, there was a trial where a black man was accused of a crime that people suggest he may not have committed. Even though the county was majority black, most of those black people were not registered to vote, which meant that all of the members of the black man’s jury were white. It was this incident that inspired the black people in Fayette County to begin registering to vote, which was there right at the time. The white community, however, was not happy about this change. So they began instituting measures to try to circumvent black political power. This took many different forms such as trying to have an all white primary, which was eventually decided to be illegal. And later on this developed into blacklisting black people from accessing goods. So for example, black farmers who most most of them at the time were tenant sharecroppers, most of them were fired and because they lived on the farms that they tended to they were also evicted at the same time. Black people were no longer able to go to doctors offices with white people who owned the practices, they couldn’t go to regular grocery stores to get food, they could only get things from their community. So the black people in Fayette County banded together to create what became known as Tent City where they all lived in tents for roughly a year or so. On the one hand, I think this is a story of black power and a sense and that the community really came together to tend to their own needs and not bow to the pressures of white people who were trying to stop them from getting their right to vote. And of course, on the other hand, this is also a very sad story because there were so many families impacted by this. Hundreds were evicted from their homes, as I said, and couldn’t access regular just groceries, which is, of course devastating. A lot of the support outside of the community came from other states, because most of the people in the surrounding areas in Tennessee were unwilling to do anything to help them to survive. As you noted, it may not seem clear what the connection is between black voting rights and capital punishment, but the two issues are inherently connected. 

Anne Holsinger 8:54 

One factor that you mentioned was that jury rolls were pulled from voter records. Is that right? 

Tiana Herring 9:00 

Correct. So that was the way that juries were previously composed. As of now, Tennessee’s has changed their laws so that jury rolls are now pulled from the DMV. Some studies have shown that pulling jury rolls from the DMV also reduces the diversity of juries. 

Anne Holsinger 9:20 

Are there other ways that that you think voter disenfranchisement relates to how capital punishment is used? 

Tiana Herring 9:27 

Absolutely, and it’s especially relevant in Tennessee right now. In the last few years, the state legislature has been taking power away from locally elected prosecutors and instead giving the power to the state’s attorney general’s office to decide how to handle death penalty cases. So in 2023, the most recent legislative session, the again state legislature passed a bill that allows the Attorney General exclusive control over handling the appeals process of death penalty cases. And it’s predicted that this is in response to the quote unquote reform prosecutors in Shelby and Davidson counties, because these two jurisdictions are more amenable to trying to rectify issues that have been brought up in various death penalty cases. 

Anne Holsinger 10:31 

So obviously, this removal of cases from county prosecutors affects whether locally elected officials are handling things at the local level. But is the Attorney General elected in Tennessee? 

Tiana Herring 10:47 

No, which is very important here. Tennessee is the only state where the Attorney General is actually appointed by the Supreme Court. And therefore none of the members who are deciding who is going to be the Attorney General, and not even the Attorney General himself is elected. Which means again, that instead of having a locally elected prosecutor decide issues for the county that they represent, the power’s instead being given to someone else, who they have not even had a say in when it comes to deciding who will be in charge of these cases. 

Anne Holsinger 11:27 

Were there any particular stories or facts from the report that stuck with you? 

Tiana Herring 11:32 

One of the most interesting stories that has stayed on my mind since writing this report is just how similar the the economic situation and work situation was for black workers, even after slavery was abolished. So even when white people could no longer own slaves to tend to their farms, it was still very common that black people would be brought into the fields to continue working as if they were enslaved. And again, this system remained for quite a while, as late as the 1940s. In Memphis, black people were regularly being arrested on fabricated vagrancy charges. And then given the option of well, do you want to stay in jail and eventually go to prison on this charge? Or would you like to go work in a field for some landowners that need help? Again, the system was concocted by the political machine in Memphis, it was very intentional, and was specifically being used to one, ensure that white landowners had enough people to work on their farms so they could get their money and two, to make sure that black people stayed at the bottom of the social class, which is where they wanted them to be. 

Anne Holsinger 12:56 

What lessons do you hope policymakers in Tennessee will take from this report? 

Tiana Herring 13:00 

The most important issue here is that the past really isn’t the past. And that’s what I want legislators and policymakers to take away from this. The legacies of racial terror will continue to inform the use of capital punishment if we don’t acknowledge where capital punishment comes from in the state. So while we don’t necessarily have the answers of like, where to go next, we can use history to inform how we’re going to move forward. And I believe that would be very important for policymakers to do to ensure that we’re not repeating the past. 

Anne Holsinger 13:42 

And if you could leave readers with three things to remember from the report, what would they be? 

Tiana Herring 13:49 

The first thing that I want readers to take away from this report is the race of the victim is continually an important factor in whether or not someone is sentenced to death. Additionally, I want people to understand how racial history again, is informing the death penalty today. So one of the best examples of this is that historically, in Tennessee, there were 13 offenses for which black people could receive the death penalty, but only two offenses that white people could receive the death penalty for. Furthermore, going back to that race victim issue, there were specific offenses that were only considered death eligible if the victim was white in those cases. And lastly, many of the historical issues raised in the report, such as segregation and black voter disenfranchisement are still prevalent in Tennessee today. They are not as far in the past as we may think they are. Memphis, for example, is highly segregated — a 2021 study found that 17 of the city’s neighborhoods. For at least 98%, black and five were at least 90% White. Additionally, Tennessee has the highest proportion of disenfranchised black residents in the US, with more than one in five black people unable to vote. So again, these remnants of Jim Crow and segregation are still issues that we need to consider today. It’s not just something of the past, and there are ways for the state to move forward in addressing these legacies of violence. 

Anne Holsinger 15:32 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners? 

Tiana Herring 15:35 

Yes, so you can view our full report on the website. Otherwise, we also have our 10 key facts as well, in case you don’t have the time to read the full report. You can also find some infographics we put together in case you wanted to learn more about race disparities and lynchings or in death sentencing. 

Anne Holsinger 15:56 

Thank you so much, Tiana, I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us more about the report. Our listeners can find the report Doomed to Repeat: The Legacy of Race in Tennessee’s Contemporary Death Penalty at And as Tiana mentioned, in addition to the report itself, we’ve also posted 10 key facts about Tennessee’s death penalty, and a series of data visualizations. To learn more about the death penalty, you can visit our website at And to make sure you never miss an episode of our podcast, you can subscribe to Discussions with DPIC on your podcast app of choice.