Tennessee should follow in Virginia’s footsteps by abolishing the death penalty

Recently, the governor of Virginia signed a law approved by the Virginia legislature that abolished the death penalty in Virginia.

This event made me reflect on his experience with the death penalty.

In 2011, Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, visited Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville for a weekend. Following his presentations, I read his two books, “Dead Man Walking” and “The Death of Innocence”, started researching first degree murder and the death penalty and started visiting on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

This article is only intended for adults convicted of first degree murder since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

I have identified over 3,000 people who have been convicted of first degree murder in Tennessee. 2,836 are adults. 193 people were sentenced to death. Only 87 people were sentenced to death.

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There are three categories of people sentenced to prolonged death:

  1. 13 men were executed.
  2. 27 men died while awaiting execution.
  3. Currently, 47 people are likely to be executed.

As a result, 2,751 adults convicted of first degree murder were not sentenced to death.

There are 95 counties in Tennessee. 67 counties were not sentenced to death. 18 counties had only one death sentence. In the past 29 years, 12 of those 18 counties have not had crimes resulting in death sentences. Only 10 counties committed offenses that resulted in more than one death sentence.

For offenses committed since February 22, 1992, suspended death sentences have only been handed down in 14 counties. These counties represent half of the population of Tennessee. The other 81 counties make up half of Tennessee’s population.

Murders committed by those on suspended death row occurred in the following periods: 4 in 1977, 1978 or 1979; 40 in the 1980s; 27 in the 1990s; 13 from 2000 to 2019; and 3 from 2010 to 2019. No accused has committed murder since 2015 resulting in death sentences.

372 defendants who were convicted of the murder of several victims (2 to 6) have been identified. 340 of the 372 were not sentenced to death. Of the 87 defendants who were sentenced to death for first degree murder, 55 were convicted of the murder of a single victim.

The number of murderers of multiple victims who have been sentenced to less than death is more than six times the number of murderers of one victim who have been sentenced to death.

The above demonstrates the arbitrariness, the disproportion in the sentencing system for first degree murder, that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder, an evolving standard of decency, and that the death penalty is became cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Thus, Tennessee should follow the leadership of Virginia.

Ed Miller is a lawyer in Brentwood.

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