Tennessee's death penalty system is so flawed that a temporary halt in executions should be continued to permit a thorough review of the state's capital punishment administration, according to an American Bar Association (ABA) report released Monday.
The ABA's report urged Gov. Phil Bredesen to extend a May 2 stay he imposed on Tennessee executions to examine protocols for administering lethal injection and electrocution.
A team of Tennessee legal experts, working under the auspices of the ABA's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, cited problems in the state's use of capital punishment ranging from excessive caseloads and inadequate standards for defense counsel to racial disparities and inadequate review of death row inmates' claims of actual innocence.
"Gov. Bredesen clearly has given sober consideration to how executions are carried out in Tennessee," ABA President Karen J. Mathis said in a prepared release. "Now it is time for him, and for the state as a whole, to devote even more thorough analysis to how the state reaches the decision to sentence someone to death. The families and friends of capital crime victims in Tennessee, the people accused of committing those crimes, and the citizens who place their trust in their legal system deserve better justice than they are now receiving."
Bredesen, who is a death penalty supporter, announced the 90-day stay on Feb. 1 and granted temporary reprieves to four men on death row. Two executions have been carried out in Tennessee over the past decade. Both of the executions, said Bredesen, were carried out "constitutionally and appropriately."
But the ABA's team of legal experts in Tennessee found the state falls short of ABA protocols for a fair and accurate capital case system.
For instance, the report cited a January 2007 finding by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office that district public defender offices across the state were short 123 attorneys.
Juror confusion was also cited as a problem.
"Death sentences resulting from juror confusion or mistake are not tolerable, but research establishes that many Tennessee capital jurors do not understand their roles and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence," the report said.
About 100 people are currently on Tennessee's death row, with 61 of them coming from the state's largest metropolitan counties, according to the Department of Correction.
Prior to 1913, Tennessee's method of execution was hanging. Electrocution became the method of execution in 1916. In 1998, the state legislature added lethal injection, giving those inmates committing their crimes before Jan. 1, 1999, the choice of electrocution or lethal injection.
Legislation enacted in March 2000 specifies lethal injection as the primary method of execution, but inmates who committed their offense and were sentenced to death prior to Jan. 1, 1999, may request electrocution.
The report said the ABA neither supports nor opposes either the death penalty or any particular means of carrying out executions.
Tennessee is the sixth of eight states being assessed under the ABA project, which developed the protocols in 2001. Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Arizona and Indiana preceded Tennessee.
The full report and an executive summary, including charts that identify specific recommendations and state compliance levels, are available online at www.abavideonews.org/ABA340.