Bill to Do Away with Death Penalty Done, But Controversy Not Going Away

A measure to repeal the state’s death penalty was tabled for the year in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee last week, but not before garnering support from at least one Republican.

The measure will probably be back yet again next year, but it may gain traction over the summer as conversations in the state over how — and, perhaps ultimately, if — executions are carried out in Tennessee. The last time the Volunteer State executed a death-row inmate was Cecil Johnson in 2009, under Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

The bill’s sponsor, Memphis Democrat Johnnie Turner, said she brings an anti-death penalty bill every year, and as with the legislative “climate” in previous years, she quickly perceived it wasn’t going to pass.

But even though House Bill 1317 never even got a hearing, she won something that’s been lacking in the past: a Republican co-sponsor in Jeremy Faison of Cosby.

Turner said she’s eager to work with Faison going forward to start a serious legislative conversation abut the death penalty. In addition to the ever-present worry about imposing the ultimate penalty on an innocent person, Turner calls the state’s current system for carrying out the death penalty “ineffective, inequitable and unreliable.” The process takes far too long to be considered “swift” or “sure justice for anyone,” she said.

Turner also worries that the 21 “causes that can lead to the death penalty” in Tennessee makes the state one of the most reflexive in the nation when it comes to the sentence of death by government. Texas, which is often criticized by death penalty opponents for the number of executions it carries out, has about 10 less of those causes, Turner said.

And that is a disturbing issue to Faison, who told TNReport while he’s a supporter of the death penalty, it ought to be used only for the most heinous of crimes and only when a conviction was obtained with overwhelming evidence.

Faison said he didn’t really think “the death penalty has anything to do with being a conservative or liberal,” but he would like to sit down this summer and “discuss this as a state,” to ensure that there’s no chance the wrong people were being executed.

The House Government Operations Committee chairman likewise said the discussion was important because of the large number of causes for which Tennesseans face the death penalty, as well as the risk that an innocent person might be wrongfully convicted and put to death.

“I want to make sure the bad players are taken care of,” Faison said. “But there’s 21 factors that you would be able to take the death penalty; more than just about any other state in America. It just causes me to say hey, let’s stop and look at this, and see if we could do something to clean it up.”

Faison added that capital punishment “costs an absolute fortune” because of the number of appeal opportunities the accused has prior to their execution date.

And Faison isn’t the only voice on the Right this year to suggest the death penalty could stand to be looked at.

Earlier this month, Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty announced the launch of Tennessee Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.