Are TN Supreme Court elections behind sudden death penalty?

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has executed six people since 1960, yet the State Supreme Court suddenly has scheduled 10 execution dates this year and next — just before voters decide the fate of three justices in a retention election.

Courts convicted the 10 men scheduled for execution decades ago. One man, Donald Strouth, received his death penalty sentence as far back as 1978, according to information from the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

As Tennessee Watchdog reported, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, questioned whether the timing of these executions has anything to do with the August retention election.

Chief Justice Gary Wade and two other justices — Connie Clark and Sharon Lee — are up for a retention vote. Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed them all.

Chris Butler explains the curious timing on Tennessee’s death row.

Ron Ramsey

State Supreme Court officials are merely following state law, Michelle Wojciechowski, Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman, told Tennessee Watchdog.

“Although this is a complicated issue, the short answer is that the Tennessee Supreme Court is statutorily required to set an execution date when it affirms a death sentence on direct appeal, which is the first tier of the appeals process. The Supreme Court complies with this statute in each case,” Wojciechowski said.

Once convicted, state law gives inmates the right to a lengthy, complicated appeals process.

Once those proceedings end, the state attorney general can ask the state Supreme Court for an execution date, Wojciechowski said.

Those inmates apparently have exhausted the appeals process.

The Tennessee Supreme Court appoints the state attorney general, now Bob Cooper, a Democrat.

Regardless, other media outlets also have questioned the timing of so many executions in such a short time, although none appear to have questioned whether they’re tied to retention elections.

The Tennessean, for instance, quoted Nashville defense attorney David Raybin, who said state officials are possibly embarrassed by the fact that one death-row inmate, Paul Dennis Reid Jr., died of natural causes.

Tennessee Department of Corrections spokeswoman Dorinda Carter told Tennessee Watchdog the state has 75 death-row inmates.

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade

According to a chronology available on the state’s website, Cecil Johnson, convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, was the most recent person executed in Tennessee. State officials put him to death in 2009.

As reported last week, Wade made comments to a Murfreesboro radio station in December that seemed to suggest death penalty supporters fall into a neat little box of people motivated purely by Old Testament-style revenge.

Neither Wade nor any of his representatives have returned Tennessee Watchdog’s messages seeking comment.

A Gallup poll last year revealed that 68 percent of adults in the South favor the death penalty for murder convicts. Only 25 percent of adults oppose the death penalty.

Nationally, the number of adults who support capital punishment is 63 percent, the poll revealed.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Category: Featured, News, Tennessee, death penalty, Gary Wade, Ron Ramsey

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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