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Ramsey Lauds Passage of Bill Limiting Death-Row Legal Aid

Press Release from Tennessee Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, April 4, 2011:

Post-conviction defender oversight commission bill passes Senate

(Nashville) – Legislation sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) to create a new post-conviction defender oversight commission passed this evening on the Senate floor by a vote of 21 to 8.

Senate Bill 827 clearly delineates the line between the role of the office of post-conviction defender which provides counsel for indigent death penalty convicts and the oversight commission whose mission is solely administrative.

“Constitutionally, we must provide a death penalty defense to those cannot afford one, but we must also ensure accountability to the taxpayer for those charged with overseeing this program,” said Ramsey.

Under this new legislation no member of the commission may advise or assist the post-conviction defender in providing legal representation in post-conviction cases.

“Every defendant has the right to vigorous defense,” said Ramsey. “But the people of this state also have the right to see just sentences carried out and their money well spent.”

The bill terminates the current post-conviction defender commission on June 30, 2011. The new commission will be comprised of three appointments each from the speaker of the senate, the speaker of the house and the governor. Those appointments are to be made by September 1, 2011.

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Bredesen: TN Execution Methods ‘Humane & Sensible’

Gov. Phil Bredesen said he stands by Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol despite the Tennessee Supreme Court delaying four executions while lower courts determine the constitutionality of an extra step recently added to the procedure.

He says he respects the high court’s decision to allow trial courts 90 days to test whether a new step added during the lethal injection is constitutionally sound, but believes the state is already operating within all confines of the law.

“I’m confident that what we’re doing is humane and sensible and in the main stream, it is certainly what a great many other states do, and that in the end we’ll find that what we’re doing is consistent with the Constitution and the law and that Tennessee will be able to go ahead,” said the governor after a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on Capitol Hill.

The 90-day delay is the latest legal twist in the execution of Stephen Michael West, a man convicted of torturing, raping and killing a woman and her teenage daughter in 1986.

Monday’s ruling was the latest twist in a recent string of legal battles over the constitutionality of the lethal injection execution practices the state uses. Critics of the method argue that individuals may still be partly conscious after the drugs designed to paralyze breathing and stop the heart are administered, thus causing the inmate undue suffering prior to dying.

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Liberty and Justice News

Bredesen Worries Lengthy Execution Delays Could Follow Ruling

Gov. Phil Bredesen expressed disappointment Monday that a Davidson County judge struck down Tennessee’s lethal injection procedure as unconstitutional.

The governor said he fears the ruling by Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman will trip up many of the state’s executions while sending Tennessee’s three-step lethal injection method into a legal knot that could take months or even years to untangle.

“Bottom line, (I am) disappointed that she didn’t exercise a little more judicial restraint here but I think that we can work our way through it and win.”

In an opinion released late Friday, Bonnyman ruled that the state’s method for lethal injection was unconstitutional because it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision puts the execution of convicted murderer Stephen Michael West on hold, and Bredesen says many more death row inmates may also be affected.

West was sentenced to death for the 1986 killings of a Union County woman and her teenage daughter.

He was scheduled to be put to death on Nov. 9, but the state Supreme Court delayed the execution to Nov. 30 so the Davidson County Chancery Court could review West’s claims that executed prisoners experience severe pain that is unconstitutional.

West’s attorneys argued that the first drug, sodium thiopental, does not cause prisoners to go completely unconscious before the final two drugs — pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes breathing, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart from beating — are administered, leaving them potentially aware and in agony.

There are 86 inmates on Tennessee’s death row. Six people have been executed since 2000.

Bredesen, who will be termed out of office in January, appointed Bonnyman to her post as a chancellor of the 20th District in Davidson County in 2003. The recent ruling will surely delay future executions, he said.

“It definitely has put things on hold, and how long that is will depend on the courts and also on whatever strategy the attorney general employs to appeal or not appeal this,” he said.

Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bob Cooper, said an appeal is likely but declined to give further details.

The U.S. Supreme Court has opined about the three-drug cocktail used for lethal injection, said Bredesen. The case, which involved two Kentucky prisoners, gave states the OK to continue using this method.

“I would really like to get this resolved in state court, because if you go back into the federal system, I mean it can literally be years while this stuff works its way through the legal system,” Bredesen said.

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Bredesen Pulls Gaile Owens Off Death Row

Gov. Phil Bredesen has commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens, a Tennessee woman who pleaded guilty to hiring a hit man to kill her husband in 1985.

Owens, convicted in Shelby County, will now serve a life sentence, although she will be eligible to plead her case for release before the state’s parole board in 2012.

Bredesen cited several reasons for canceling her Sept. 28 execution, including wanting to stay true to the original plea deal Owens struck with prosecutors prior to her trial. She agreed to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison but the deal disappeared when her co-defendant, Sidney Porterfield, rejected the deal.

“Whereas, this appears to me an extraordinary death penalty case in which the defendant admitted her involvement in the murder of her husband and attempted to accept the district attorney’s conditional offer of life imprisonment,” read the official commutation. “This acceptance was ineffective only because of her co-defendant’s refusal to accept such an agreement.”

The “extraordinary death penalty case” had different results than all other similar convictions of women who were involved in their husbands’ murder.

He said his office reviewed 33 cases of women convicted for their involvement in their husbands’ murder. Thirty of those women were sentenced to life in prison, one without the possibility of parole.

The remaining two were sentenced to death. Former Gov. Lamar Alexander commuted one and Bredesen said he is commuting the other.

He also said the woman may have been been abused by her husband. That doesn’t justify her actions, Bredesen said, but it should be taken into account.

“This case also raises unresolved allegations of domestic violence and emotional abuse that, while inconclusive, raise the possibility that the defendant suffered from the form of post traumatic stress disorder then known as battered woman syndrome,” the commutation continued.

Owens was convicted in 1986 of being an accessory in the murder-for-hire plot to kill Ron Owen. She is now housed at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.

Bredesen said he hasn’t spoken to Owens, but did inform her attorney, George Barrett.

“This is not going to be decided on who’s for it or who’s against it or political pressure or anything else,” Bredesen told reporters.

This is the Democratic governor’s second commutation. In 2007, he commuted the sentence of Michael Joe Boyd, a man who was convicted for committing first-degree murder during a robbery. In that case, Bredesen said Boyd received “grossly inadequate legal representation” during his post conviction hearing.

Six people have been executed since 2000, according to the Department of Corrections. Eighty eight people are now on Tennessee’s death row.

Owens asked for the commutation on July 30, 2009. Her family began petitioning against her execution this spring.