Sunday, 13 May 2007

Execution doesn't end questions about Workman case

Execution doesn't end questions about Workman case

Philip Workman died at the hands of the state of Tennessee last week.

His execution ended a saga that began with a Memphis police officer’s death during a botched robbery 26 years ago. Some would call that justice; a balancing of the scales after an inappropriately long delay.

Such a sentiment is echoed in the published remarks of those closest to the case.

"I WANTED to make sure they executed him," Memphis police Sgt. Russ Akin, a friend of the slain officer, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

"Twenty-five years ago, a jury of 12 citizens decided the appropriate sentence for Philip Workman. Finally … justice has been served," said District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, whose office prosecuted the case.

Retribution. Punishment. Justice. These are the terms prosecutors, police and death penalty proponents generally use to justify the continued use of capital punishment in a civilized society long removed from the frontier.

DEATH PENALTY opponents use other words: irrevocable, unnecessary, disproportionate and inhumane. If all human life is valuable – from its beginning to its natural end, to paraphrase Pope John Paul II – then executing even one innocent man would be a grievous error. That most of those executed are vile killers makes no difference.

Workman, 53, wasn’t an innocent. He admitted robbing a Wendy’s restaurant and engaging in a shoot-out with police while strung out on cocaine in 1981. He even admitted shooting an officer who was wounded but survived. These are undeniably bad acts that deserve no sympathy.

But Workman wasn’t sentenced to die for the botched robbery or wounding an officer. He was condemned for killing Lt. Ronnie Oliver during the struggle with police that followed the robbery. Workman never admitted firing the fatal shot; he claimed a memory clouded by cocaine. The jury didn’t believe him.

THE FINAL nail in Workman’s coffin was the eyewitness testimony of Harold Davis, a sometimes police informant who said he saw Workman fire the fatal shot. Years later, Davis recanted. He told Workman’s lawyers, reporters and anyone else who would listen that he wasn’t there. Police photos of the crime scene tend to support Davis’ claim that he lied at the trial; his car isn’t pictured in them.

That Davis recanted does not make Workman innocent, but it casts doubt on the manner in which he was convicted. It raises troubling questions – ones that Workman raised in some of his latter appeals. The courts ruled it was too late for Workman to raise claims of actual innocence; he wasn’t granted a new trial.

There were questions, too, about the forensic evidence in the case. Later ballistics tests couldn’t rule out Workman’s gun as the murder weapon, but they were inconclusive. At least one defense expert interpreted the test results as indicating that Oliver died of friendly fire rather than from a shot from Workman’s gun.

AGAIN, THE issue was litigated in latter appeals, but courts ruled Workman made the claim too late. Finality trumped justice.

Neither the ballistics evidence nor the recanted testimony proves that Workman did not fire the fatal shot. It offers no absolute certainty of guilt or innocence. But the questions remain and the answers aren’t adequate. In fact, five of the jurors who sentenced Workman to die have since written letters asking that his sentence be commuted or indicating they would not have voted for death under such murky circumstances.

The courts didn’t listen. Workman’s last round of appeals – one on the grounds of newly discovered evidence; one that challenged the state’s newly revised lethal injection protocols – were denied. He is dead. Nothing can change that fact.

AS THE courts were deciding Workman’s fate, the Tennessee General Assembly was pondering a full-scale review of the death penalty. This comes on the heels of an American Bar Association report that said the state’s capital punishment system has serious flaws. While the ABA takes no official stand on capital punishment, the organization has a reputation as a death-penalty opponent, at least in prosecutorial and police circles.

The Bar Association report found that Tennessee continues to execute the poor, the mentally ill and racial minorities at a disproportionate rate. It also found the state has an inadequate procedure to handle claims of factual innocence.

Armed with that critical assessment, the state House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a year-long study of the death penalty, but did not place a moratorium on executions during that time. Workman’s execution came just days after a 90-day moratorium issued by the governor was allowed to expire.

IF THE state is so concerned about the way in which death is meted out, it makes little sense to allow executions to continue while the study committee does its work. The death sentence is irrevocable; no one should die while the state studies its options.

This isn’t about sympathy for Workman. While his conviction carries a certain taint, he admitted exchanging gunfire with police. He was part and parcel of the circumstances that led to Oliver’s death even if he did not fire the fatal shot. Even if he didn’t merit execution, he certainly didn’t deserve to walk free.

But the facts of the next case might be murkier still. The criminal justice system, devised by inherently flawed human beings, is neither perfect nor infallible. Life without parole provides an acceptable alternative to protect society from even the most vile killers and it eliminates the possibility of a fatal error.

Tennessee lawmakers should go ahead with their study, but they should do some soul-searching and consider making Workman’s execution the last one.

Andrea Hopkins is opinion editor of the Bristol Herald Courier. She may be reached at or (276) 645-2534.

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