By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — Comments that Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade made to a radio station seem to suggest that death penalty supporters fall into a neat little box of people motivated purely by Old Testament-style revenge.
“Capital cases are so very difficult,” Wade said.
Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade
“It’s a moral and emotional decision with many people, and thus a fair segment of our society would like to eliminate the death penalty altogether, whereas a significant segment of society is passionate about retaining the death penalty on the biblical theory of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’”
But does Wade really believe that Tennessee’s death penalty supporters are motivated by revenge — and not justice instead?
Neither Wade nor any of his representatives returned Tennessee Watchdog’s messages seeking comment Friday.
The recently discovered comments are particularly relevant now. Wade and two other Tennessee Supreme Court justices, Connie Clark and Sharon Lee, all of whom were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, are up for a retention vote in August.
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, generated several headlines this week when media outlets revealed he is targeting those three justices and telling the public that they were soft on convicted murders.
If voted out, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam would appoint their replacements.
Station reporter Phil Williams cited a previous Tennessee Watchdog report on former death row inmate Arthur Copeland. Williams falsely said Tennessee Watchdog has “close ties to the Republican Party.”
Tennessee Watchdog previously quoted one political expert, Gregory Gleaves, as saying the court’s handling of the Copeland case would bring voters out to the polls.
Copeland was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death based largely on the testimony of a witness. The witness, however, did not see Copeland fire a gun. Additionally, the trial court did not allow Copeland to put a psychology professor on the stand. For these reasons, in 2007 the Supreme Court ordered a new trial.
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.
News Channel 5 stated that the state Supreme Court has sustained 18 out of 21 death penalty cases it has received since 2006.
“What Ramsey does not say is that, because Copeland had been convicted on the word of a single eyewitness, the court said the judge should have let an expert tell the jury that eyewitness testimony isn’t as reliable as people think,” according to Channel 5.
“At the same time, they actually overturned a lower court decision and ruled that the death penalty was still an option for Copeland.”
In an email, Ramsey told Tennessee Watchdog on Friday that Wade and other state Supreme Court justices aren’t serious about enforcing capital punishment.
“The philosophical questions regarding the death penalty are not the issue. The law is,” Ramsey said.
“Unfortunately, this court is not serious about the death penalty. Tennessee has only executed six convicts since 1976. There are 76 people on Tennessee’s death row, 24 of whom were sentenced prior to 1990.
“The Supreme Court is in charge of setting execution dates for convicts. They have started doing so only recently — just months before they face voters in Augusts’ retention election.”
As for the death penalty supporters Wade mentioned to WGNS — 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 capitol punishment is 63 percent, the poll revealed.
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