Tennessee Governor Lets Death Penalty Moratorium Expire


Tennessee's Democratic governor allowed a 90-day moratorium on the death penalty to expire Wednesday, clearing the way for next week's scheduled execution of death-row inmate Philip Workman.

Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered a halt to carrying out the death penalty in February, giving the state's Department of Corrections 90 days to review written execution protocols he called a "cut and paste" job.

 

On Monday the governor signed off on new protocols, a week before the May 9 scheduled execution date of Workman, a 53-year-old inmate who has been on death row for 25 years for fatally wounding a Memphis police officer in a shootout during his 1981 arrest.

 

On Tuesday Workman filed an appeal asking for an April 27 ruling by a U.S. District Court denying him a stay of execution to be reconsidered.

 

He also could challenge the new protocols and the fact his lawyers had only nine days to review them before his scheduled death.

 

The new execution protocols continue use of a three-chemical lethal injection method that opponents say is inhumane and unconstitutional. One of the chemicals used in the protocol is banned for use by veterinarians to euthanize animals.

 

Tennessee's Department of Corrections commissioner said the protocol, used in Tennessee and 29 other jurisdictions, is "humane when properly administered."

 

A recent medical review of executions found drugs used to execute prisoners in the United States sometimes fail to work as intended, causing inmates to die painful deaths. The condemned reportedly suffocate and feel pain but are immobilized and unable to cry out or writhe in pain.

 

The American Bar Association last week asked Bredesen to extend the moratorium and to review not only the executions protocol, but Tennessee's entire death penalty system. The ABA, which says it neither supports nor opposes the death penalty, found problems with procedures to address claims by death-row inmates that they are innocent, inadequate qualifications and excessive caseloads for defense lawyers and racial inequities among those convicted of capital crimes.

 

The ABA is reviewing the death penalty in eight states--Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The lawyers' organization has called for a moratorium on executions in those states to make sure executions are done fairly and with due process.

 

Moratorium advocate and Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean, in Nashville Monday to speak at Baptist-affiliated Belmont University, asked to meet with the Tennessee governor but was turned down.

 

"When you don't open the door and let light into the room, what does that say to people?" Prejean said in remarks reported by Nashville ABC affiliate WKRN Channel 2.

 

Amnesty International released figures showing momentum is building for an end to capital punishment, with worldwide executions and death sentences declining 25 percent in 2006.

 

Last year the Philippines became the 99th country to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes. Just 16 were abolitionist in 1977.

 

The U.S. ranked as sixth "worst offender" in the number of executions, behind China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan. Those six nations, according to the report, accounted for 91 percent of all known executions in 2006.

 

The group is calling for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment.

 

"The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment," Khan said. "It must be abolished, and a universal moratorium will be an important step forward."

 

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics was one of nearly 200 faith leaders from across Tennessee signing a letter asking the governor to extend the moratorium to allow a full study of the state's death system, described as "a mess" and "extremely flawed."

 

Other signatories include Andrew Watts and Todd Lake of Belmont University, and prominent Nashville-area ministers including Jim Kitchens from Second Presbyterian Church, American Baptist College President Forrest Harris, K.C. Ptomey of Westminster Presbyterian Church, John Collett of Belmont United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Voice Editor Janet Hilley, David Kidd of Hillsboro Presbyterian Church, Edwin Sanders of Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, Enoch Fuzz of Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church, James Thomas of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church and Rabbi Ronald Roth of West End Synagogue.

 

On Wednesday, Tennessee's House Judiciary Committee moved forward a bill that would create an independent review of the state's death penalty system.

 

Stacy Rector of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing applauded the committee, while criticizing Bredesen's refusal to extend the moratorium.

 

"It is disappointing that the governor is allowing executions to resume even after he's heard from legal experts, faith leaders, and the people of Tennessee that we should act to fix a broken system," Rector said. "But it is encouraging that the General Assembly is taking steps to address the serious flaws in Tennessee's capital punishment system."

 

Tennessee has executed just two people since 1960, both by lethal injection. Beside Workman, there are currently 102 Tennessee inmates on death row.

 

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

 

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