Sunday, 17 June 2007

Studying death in Tennessee

Sunday, Jun 17, 2007 - 12:52 AM

A year-long study of Tennessee’s death penalty will determine whether the state applies the punishment without bias and whether it takes adequate steps to safeguard the innocent.
The study is urgently needed – given a report by the American Bar Association that found critical flaws in the state’s death penalty process. Meeting 7 of 93 benchmark standards isn’t good enough when a life is at stake.

Thus, the study received overwhelming legislative approval. The Senate passed it unanimously. In the House, just 14 lawmakers voted no. It would be difficult to find a measure with more support.

That’s why the vote of Rep. Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, makes no sense. Mumpower, the House minority leader, voted against the study.

No other member of the region’s legislative delegation opposed the study. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, voted yes. So did Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, Rep. Nathan Vaughn, D-Kingsport, and Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City.
What did Mumpower find objectionable about the study that didn’t trouble his regional colleagues?

The text of the bill offers no clues. Surely Mumpower agrees that the state should "exercise the utmost care in matters of life and death" and that "the execution of an innocent person by the state of Tennessee would be a grave and irreversible injustice"? Or that the criminal just system must be "impartial, equitable, competent [and] accurate" and meet the needs of victims’ family members?

Is Mumpower trying to prove his conservative credentials – to be known as the lawmaking equivalent of a hanging judge? Or does he fear the study might be a prelude to dismantle the death penalty, since public support is waning?

The measure doesn’t do away with the penalty; it doesn’t even include a moratorium. It creates a 16-member committee made up of lawmakers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and advocates for crime victims and the mentally ill. The committee has a year to do its work before reporting back to the legislature and the governor.

That work will focus on four issues: the standards for capital case defense lawyers, the risk of executing an innocent person, protections for mentally ill or mentally retarded defendants and services provided for victims’ families and the families of capital defendants.

These are important avenues of study; they address some of the issues raised in the ABA report. However, the committee also must investigate allegations that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to blacks, other minorities and the poor.

Almost without exception, the 100 or so condemned prisoners on the state’s death row were indigent and represented by court-appointed lawyers. About 40 percent are black, and a significant number of those were sentenced to die by all-white juries.

Of equal concern, a study by The (Nashville) Tennessean found that half of all cases in which a death penalty was imposed were overturned on appeal for procedural mistakes. Some argue this is a result of judicial advocacy and an anti-death-penalty bent on the state’s higher court benches. Perhaps. But it might also be interpreted as a stunning indictment of the present system.

The study is not coupled to a moratorium, although there are compelling arguments not to execute anyone while the state tries to fix its broken law. The political reality is that a bill that included a moratorium wouldn’t have survived its trip through the legislature. We urge the governor to use his power to stop any executions during the study period. It’s the right thing to do.

If the state is going to keep the death penalty, the system must be as fair and equitable as possible. Every care must be taken to prevent the execution of an innocent man or woman.
Tennessee cannot argue that it already takes all the necessary steps. The study will provide the information needed to shore up the law.

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