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PLN managing editor pens anti-death penalty editorial

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2014.
PLN managing editor pens anti-death penalty editorial - Tennessean 2014

Even death row inmates are people worthy of redemption

Feb. 26, 2014 8:31 PM

Recently, execution dates were scheduled for 10 prisoners on Tennessee’s death row. Gov. Bill Haslam — who has the sole power to commute death sentences — said he approved, and doubtless many others agree.

I am not one of them.

While incarcerated in the early 1990s, I struck up a friendship with a fellow prisoner who had once been on death row. Convicted of murder, his death sentence was later overturned, and he now is serving life. He has been incarcerated for the past 34 years.

Having an opportunity to meet someone sentenced to death was a formative experience with respect to my position on capital punishment. He had committed serious crimes but was still a person, like me. And he had changed over time, as I had. He had become a talented artist and shared his art both inside and outside of prison, but would never be released. He still had a death sentence — it just stretched over a lifetime of incarceration.

The main problem with the death penalty is that it disregards the fact that people change as they mature. It overlooks redemption; the crime remains the same, though the criminal doesn’t.

There are many other problems with capital punishment, of course. Notably, it is imposed by people — judges and juries — and people make mistakes. How do we know? Because 143 people sentenced to death have been exonerated nationwide since 1973. For me, those are 143 reasons to oppose capital punishment; having been through our criminal justice system as someone who was guilty, I certainly don’t trust it to spare the innocent. Our government isn’t known for getting things right, and the death penalty is no exception.

Other problems with capital punishment include racial disparities — 45 percent of the prisoners on Tennessee’s death row are black, while blacks comprise 17 percent of the state’s population. But more apparent is socioeconomic disparity: Death row is overwhelmingly filled with poor defendants. Wealthy people commit heinous crimes, too, including capital offenses, but few are sentenced to death (it helps when you can hire a team of attorneys and experts). You get as much justice as you can afford, which is a poor way to decide who should be executed and who shouldn’t.

Death sentences also are imposed with geographical disparity — of the 76 prisoners currently on Tennessee’s death row, 31 are from Shelby County, while just eight are from Davidson County. Some jurisdictions (and district attorneys) are more inclined to seek the death penalty, which is another arbitrary way to determine who dies and who serves a life sentence.

All of these factors are valid reasons to oppose capital punishment.

But for me, it was meeting — and befriending — someone who had been sentenced to death and, spared execution, had changed over time. Perhaps Gov. Haslam needs to meet the prisoners whose execution dates have been scheduled to judge for himself whether they are worthy of redemption. It’s the least he could do.

Alex Friedmann is associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of HRDC’s monthly criminal justice publication, Prison Legal News. He served 10 years behind bars in Tennessee before his release in 1999.



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