Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Serving on the Study Committee

More from Tennessee: Charlie Strobel published a piece in the Tennessean yesterday about his experience serving on the state's death penalty study committee. A couple of excerpts:

As a member of the recently completed Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, I would like to share my reactions to what the committee was and what it was not. I represented Murder Victims Families' for Human Rights, belonging to this group because my mother was murdered in 1986.

First, let me say that I had the utmost respect for every member of the committee. We were challenged to put aside our personal biases and look objectively at the facts. Whether or not members were for or against the death penalty in theory, I was impressed by their commitment, their openness, their perseverance and determination to follow through on our charge. ...

The key words in our charge as a committee were "fair and accurate." Is the death penalty imposed fairly and accurately in every case? This is the question of justice — that the death penalty cannot be fair and accurate otherwise. In the case of other crimes, the fallible nature of our justice system may err on the side of sentencing a criminal 15 years for a crime and 20 years for a similar crime. But in the matter of capital cases, the state of Tennessee has no margin for error. Death is a different sentence. We must be 100 percent fair and accurate.

The committee was neither an abolitionist nor a moratorium group. The enabling legislation would not allow discourse in this direction. I was told at the beginning that the state legislature would not consider the question of abolition or moratorium, that it would not be "politically wise" to try and force this perspective. So the committee was hemmed in by the question of "fairness and accuracy" only and not fully open to the larger question of abolition. In this regard, the committee never had the stature of commissions in other states with the greater freedom to completely investigate all death penalty matters.

Based on the given testimony, which is an open record for all citizens to examine, our final report discloses gross inadequacies, weaknesses and gaps in the administration of the death penalty in a manner that would be judged fair and accurate.

A laundry list of shortcomings, too long for me to expound upon — from ineffective assistance of counsel to the recording of interrogations to the fact that virtually all defendants sentenced to death in Tennessee are indigent — are in this report. Furthermore,although meeting for 16 months, there was not enough time to satisfactorily conclude our work, as there were many issues that we failed to address. Thus, our report is incomplete and further study is needed.

Overall, I believe that throughout all the testimony offered, there was never any evidence presented to justify the death penalty as fair and accurate

Several times I commented that if the death penalty were a person, and on trial before our committee as judge and jury, I believe it would be found guilty of being grossly unjust and risking the execution of an innocent person. One pro-death penalty witness representing the district attorneys, testifying about prosecutorial discretion, said that if there were 20 prosecutors in a room discussing a potential capital case, 10 would choose to seek the death penalty and 10 would not.

In light of these facts, I believe the death penalty system should be abolished. Because of political reasons, at least we need our elected officials to postpone any future executions — given the cloud of uncertainty that we are under at this time surrounding these issues of fairness and accuracy — by declaring a moratorium on the death penalty. ...

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