The state of Tennessee has announced that five death row prisoners are scheduled to be executed this Wednesday, June 28th. Tennessee has carried out only one execution since 1960. We speak with the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. [includes rush transcript]
The state of Tennessee has announced that five death row prisoners are scheduled to be executed this Wednesday, June 28th.
The announcement has come as a shock to some in the state which has carried out only one execution since 1960. Scheduled to die are Sedley Alley, Paul Dennis Reid, Charles Rice, David Ivy, and William Glenn Rogers.
Legal experts are predicting that three of the men–Rice, Ivy and Rogers–will not be executed on Wednesday because they still have state and federal appeals available to them.
However that is not true for Sedley Alley or Paul Dennis Reid.
Last week, however, the Innocence Project filed a brief on behalf of Sedley Alley. The New York-based legal group argued that he should not be executed until he is given access to post-conviction DNA evidence that could prove his innocence.
Alley was originally scheduled to be executed last month. But Tennessee’s governor granted him a 15-day reprieve just eight hours before he was scheduled to die.
- Randy Tatel, Executive Director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing.
AMY GOODMAN: Randy Tatel is joining us now from Nashville, Tennessee, Executive Director of the Tennessee Coalition Against State Killing. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Randy.
RANDY TATEL: Good morning, Amy. Greetings from Music City, U.S.A.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about these cases? First of all, first it was five?
RANDY TATEL: Right, the last three gentlemen that you mentioned have what we refer to as automatic dates that we never consider to be real dates. When an inmate transfers from one level of appeals to the next, and in this case, for them it was from direct appeals to state post-conviction, the state automatically sets an execution date. And once the papers are filed from the inmate’s lawyers requesting to continue with the appeals, then those dates disappear. And in these three cases, those are simply either computer-generated or automatically generated dates. We never consider those to be real dates. However, as you mentioned up front, that the dates for Sedley Alley and Paul Dennis Reid next Wednesday are considered very real.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the case that the Innocence Project has taken on?
RANDY TATEL: The Innocence Project came in on Sedley Alley’s case. And as you mentioned, again, the state has physical evidence that has never been DNA-tested, and Alley’s federal attorneys are saying that the testing of this evidence could actually prove his innocence. That’s what they’re claiming. And, of course, Berry Scheck and the Innocence Project came in on this. The state has taken what we think is an awkward position to hold, in that, why would you want to withhold evidence that could reveal the truth? Isn’t that what justice is supposed to be about? If there is evidence, and we know the power that DNA evidence testing has to either convict or to exonerate someone, why don’t the state officials want to have certainty in this case? It’s a question that many of us are asking right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk a little more about Tennessee and the attitude of Tennesseans to the death penalty?
RANDY TATEL: Well, sure. Tennessee has had only one execution since 1960, and that was in April of 2000. And as it turns out, Robert Glen Coe, who was executed then by lethal injection, was a severely mentally ill individual who was taking over 20 medications at the time of his execution to manage his multiple diagnosed mental illnesses. So that’s one execution in over 16,000 days here in Tennessee. And now suddenly we’re faced with having two executions on the same night. But Tennessee is an anomaly here in the former Confederate states, insofar as it has had so few executions during that time period. I believe more than 85% of the executions that have taken place since the reinstatement of the death penalty have taken place here in the former Confederate states, yet we’ve only had the one execution, and so we’re often asked why do we think that’s the case.
And there are a couple of reasons, I think, for that. One is that up until the current attorney general, whose name is Paul Summers, none of Tennessee’s attorney generals since the reinstatement of the death penalty have held capital punishment as a valuable political tool and supported the use of capital punishment for political or other purposes. It was never a priority of their agendas during their general attorneyships. However, that’s changed under Paul Summers, who’s a very strong advocate of the death penalty and has sought, I believe, more than 20 execution dates since Robert Coe was executed in 2000, and all of them have been stayed to date.
And that brings me to the second reason that we think that we’ve had so few executions here, is that the lawyers that work in state post-conviction office and in the federal public defender’s offices around the state are simply some of the finest capital attorneys in the country, and they have done outstanding work in advocating for their clients, and in the process, revealing many of the flaws that exist in the administration of capital punishment that Americans first came to know about through the actions of former Governor Ryan in Illinois back in 2000.
AMY GOODMAN: The defense lawyers have accused the Memphis judge of bias, for blocking DNA tests on the murder scene evidence, while the state told an appeals court that Sedley Alley is just trying to delay his execution. Can you talk about the judge and what’s happening in the case?
RANDY TATEL: Well, I don’t know about the judge, personally. It certainly appears that the judge was predisposed to deny releasing the evidence. And, in fact, we can step back just a step further. Governor Bredesen, as you mentioned, issued a temporary reprieve back in mid-May, when Sedley Alley was scheduled for execution, and he could have taken the step of actually mandating the release of that physical evidence for DNA testing.
Other governors around the country, including George Bush when he was governor in Texas and Jeb Bush, as governor in Florida, have actually taken the step of forcing the release of evidence for DNA testing in order to achieve clarity and certainty, in terms of the reliability of the conviction. And we certainly hoped that our governor would step up and do at least as well as the Bush brothers have done in this context, but he failed to do that.
So he sent it back to the courts, letting the courts make the determination as to whether or not they would release the evidence for testing. And this is the same judge that denied that request in 2004. So it certainly doesn’t come as a surprise that he would again refuse to release the evidence for testing.
And the attorneys are currently going to the State Supreme Court here in Tennessee to appeal the denial of the criminal court of appeals, which ruled yesterday and upheld the ruling of Judge Hicks in Memphis on this matter. And if there’s no relief to be found at the State Supreme Court level, then they will go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court on this matter.
But Sedley Alley’s attorneys also have another track, which they are pursuing, which is challenge to the lethal injection protocol here in Tennessee. And as you may well know, the Supreme Court ruled last week in the case called Hill v. McDonough that defendants on death row do have the right to challenge lethal injection protocol in the federal courts, which is something that they previously could not do. And so, that’s another avenue that Sedley Alley is pursuing in order to stop his execution.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Randy Tatel, perhaps one of the most famous Tennesseans, the former presidential candidate, Al Gore, former senator of your state, was for the death penalty, is that right?
RANDY TATEL: Yes. Certainly, Al Gore has, as most Southern politicians feel they need to do, has expressed support for the death penalty. I will point out that his daughter is a strong opponent to the death penalty and tried to give her father good counsel on that issue. But it’s not surprising that a Southern politician, even at the national level, expresses support for the death penalty. And that’s part of the culture that politicians still feel they have to be strong on crime, and part of the way that they demonstrate that is to express support for the death penalty.
But I think more and more, we’re seeing that elected officials can step up to the plate and say that they are very strong on fairness in the administration of the criminal justice system, and in particular, when you are talking about the potential taking of a human life. And so, we believe that the environment and the ground is changing for politicians. And as organizers, it’s our responsibility to demonstrate to politicians who are, as we all know, risk-adverse, that it’s safe for them to begin to step away from their overt support for the death penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: Randy Tatel, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Executive Director of the Tennessee Coalition Against State Killing. Thanks so much for joining us from Nashville.