September 21, 2007
Comprehensive review is needed of execution process
Today's Topic: Problems mount for death row
Robertson County Times, Our View
There is hope for Tennesseans concerned about the state's death-penalty
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger suspended the state's
lethal-injection procedures, ruling they constitute cruel and unusual
punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
This put on hold what could become the third execution of a Tennessee death
row prisoner this year. Edward Jerome Harbison had been scheduled to die
Also, last week, Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted a death sentence for the first
time in 4½ years in office. Inmate Michael Joe Boyd, Bredesen determined,
had received "grossly inadequate legal representation" following his 1988
conviction in the murder of William Price during an armed robbery in
Adding "the judicial system just kind of broke down," the governor changed
Boyd's sentence to life without possibility of parole.
Boyd had been scheduled for execution on Oct. 24, but it is interesting that
the commutation came just two days after Tennessee executed another inmate
by electric chair.
Daryl Holton, a former soldier convicted of killing his three sons and
stepdaughter, chose electrocution over lethal injection, despite the chair
having been unused since 1960. Officials say the execution went smoothly.
But as reflected in Trauger's ruling Wednesday, lethal injection has its own
set of problems. The current protocol for administering lethal injection —
which was adopted in April after a 90-day moratorium imposed by Bredesen
because of confusion in the previous protocol — does not ensure the
condemned is properly anesthetized before the lethal drugs are injected.
The current protocol was used to carry out the death sentence in May against
Philip Workman, who many believe did not actually fire the weapon that
killed the man he was convicted of murdering.
It is abundantly clear that Tennessee's death-penalty system is fraught with
problems. It is not only that the methods of execution may be
unconstitutional; there are much broader concerns: that death-row inmates
are not adequately defended; that as many as 10 percent are mentally
deficient, to the extent that they do not even know what is happening to
them; and, in cases such as Workman's, some may not even have committed the
crime they are convicted of.
A report by the respected Spangenberg Group earlier this year found many on
death row receive inadequate counsel because they are indigent. Prosecutors
typically have nearly triple the resources of public defenders and
indigent-defense attorneys. Many murder defendants receive only a "meet and
plead" with their attorneys, according to the Tennessee Justice Project,
which cited the findings in calling for more defense funding.
Enough questions have been raised that the state of Tennessee should suspend
all executions and institute a multipronged review. The review should call
upon top medical, legal and sociological minds to examine the system's legal
defense procedures; medical evaluation of inmates and the methods of
execution; and whether sentences are constitutionally suspect.
Certainly, there are many death penalty supporters who may not support
another moratorium and a review. And many say they do not understand why it
is a problem that the condemned inmates suffer, because their victims
suffered. But as a nation, we have not only advocated punishment for heinous
crimes, but have stood against institutional cruelty. We should not put
implements of violence into the hands of those whose job it is to administer
Also, capital punishment is irreversible. There is no remedy for putting the
wrong person to death or adding cruelty upon cruelty. Before the system
breaks down again, let us find another way.
Source : Robertson County Times