Man back on the streets after death row sentence may play into judicial retention election


By Trent Seibert | For

With the elections for the Tennessee Supreme Court in play this year, one experienced Tennessee political watcher says a case that allowed a convicted killer off death row and back on to the streets may bring voters to the polls.

And after being let off death row, Arthur Copeland had at least one more brush with the law.

“That decision is so alarming that it will send voters to the polls to throw all these judges out,” said Gregory Gleaves, who now runs his own strategy shop, Gleaves Public Strategies.

Gleaves is former chief of staff to House Speaker Beth Harwell and former executive director of the Tennessee GOP.

The three justices facing retention in an August vote are Justice Cornelia A. Clark, Justice Sharon G. Lee and Chief Justice Gary R. Wade.

Wade and Clark signed off on the decision that Gleaves calls alarming.

The decision in question concerns the case of the State of Tennessee v. Arthur T. Copeland, but the story begins with a rape in Maryville in 1998.

It was after that rape that the victim’s boyfriend, Reginald Sudderth, wanted street justice, court records show.

After learning of the rape, Sudderth purportedly offered a $10,000 “bounty” for the death of the perpetrator and warned someone “is going to die tonight,” according to records.

That $10,000 reward caught the attention of Copeland, a man with a previous criminal history who admitted in court that he “had not spent more than five consecutive months out of incarceration since he went out on his own” and that he drank and smoked pot “every day.”

From the court record: “There was evidence that (Copeland) expressed an interest in the reward money and accompanied Sudderth and others to Maryville in search of the victim, whom they believed to be responsible for the rape.”

That victim was Andre Jackson.

Jackson was in a home he was sharing with others when a witness said Copeland, on April 7, 1998, entered the house and ordered Jackson outside.

Jackson did — and handgun shots rang out.

Moments later, Jackson re-entered the house, went into a bathroom and collapsed from gunshot wounds. He was shot twice in the chest and once in the groin. The coroner said Jackson died from a collapsed lung and “massive blood loss.”

Copeland was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death based largely on the testimony of a witness.

The witness made a positive identification at trial, emphasizing that she had “eye-to-eye contact” with the Copeland. She explained that the two had “stared at each other for two full seconds” and remarked that “his eyes were so intense, I’ll never forget him.”

That conviction began a process of appeals, and the case ended up before the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2007. The court ordered a new trial, removing Copeland from death row.

One issue for the court was the witness: Her “testimony was the only direct link to the Defendant’s participation in the murder. She expressed certainty about her identification despite vigorous cross-examination. She did not, however, see the Defendant fire any shots.”

Copeland’s attorney also argued that Copeland should have been permitted by the trial court to put a psychology professor on the stand.

“The professor ‘expressed particular concern about cross-racial identification in general and (the woman’s identification) of the Defendant in particular,’” according to the court’s opinion.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, Copeland pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, waiving the right to a new trial, according to the Associated Press. His new sentence was 14 years, including 11 years previously served.

Copeland was released in March 2011, and was arrested for the alleged rape of his girlfriend in September 2013. The rape charges were dismissed in December, according to a Knox County Court official.

“I think the voters of Tennessee, if they knew about it, would have a lot to say about all this,” Gleaves said.

Gleaves also said that in addition to controversial decisions, voters may want a court that is more in line with the state’s values.

“It’s the last bastion of liberalism in Tennessee,” he said. “Republicans have taken a supermajority in the House and Senate and have the governor’s office and seven of nine congressional seats and both U.S. senators. When you consider all that, you see which direction Tennesseans are going. The time has come for the judiciary to start going in that same direction.”

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