STUDY: The Death Penalty in Tennessee is “a Cruel Lottery”

A new study of Tennessee’s death penalty concludes that the state’s capital-punishment system is “a cruel lottery” that is “riddled with arbitrariness.” The study, published in the summer 2018 issue of the Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy, examined every first-degree murder case in Tennessee since 1977 to determine whether the state had redressed the arbitrariness that had led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the nation’s death-penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. In their article, Tennessee’s Death Penalty Lottery, lawyers H.E. Miller, Jr., who conducted the study, and Bradley A. MacLean write that the odds “are close to nil” that a person who was supplied with a description of the 2,514 first-degree murder cases prosecuted in Tennessee in the last forty years could identify the 86 cases that have resulted in death sentences sustained on appeal or the six cases that have resulted in executions. The facts of the crime, they found, did not predict whether a death sentence would be imposed. Rather, the best indicators were arbitrary factors such as where the murder occurred, the race of the defendant, the quality of the defense, and the views of the prosecutors and judges assigned to the case. The study found that more Tennessee death sentences have been overturned in the courts — 106 — than have been sustained, and many of the sustained cases are still under post-conviction appeal. Moreover, the study found “a sharp decline” in death sentences imposed over the past twenty years. In the four-year period from July 1989 through June 1993, there were 282 first-degree murder cases in Tennessee, with 38 trials resulting in death sentences; from July 2009 through June 2013, 284 first-degree murder cases produced six death sentences. Tennessee has imposed only one new death sentence since 2013. The authors concluded that “[t]he death penalty system as it has operated in Tennessee over the past 40 years, and especially over the past ten years, is but a cruel lottery, entrenching the very problems that [the Supreme Court] sought to eradicate.” The study was released shortly before Tennessee is scheduled to perform its first execution in nearly nine years. The state plans to execute Billy Ray Irick on August 9, 2018, using a three-drug protocol (midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride) that has been implicated in past botched executions in other states. More than 30 death-row prisoners are suing the state, arguing that the protocol violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Even Tennessee’s own corrections staff has raised concerns about the plan. An unidentified state employee who was working to obtain lethal injection drugs wrote in an email to state officials: “Here is my concern with Midazolam. Being a benzodiazepine, it does not elicit strong analgesic effects. The subjects may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs. Potassium chloride, especially.” The state’s plan to use compounded drugs has also drawn criticism, in part because drug-production by compounding pharmacies is not subject to the same regulatory oversight as drugs produced by major manufacturers. In a trial that began July 9, lawyers for the prisoners argued that medical evidence will show that Tennessee’s three-drug combination is the equivalent of chemical waterboarding, being buried alive, or being exposed to liquid fire or sarin gas. Prosecutors have argued that to be unconstitutional, the state’s execution method would have to amount to torture or be a gruesome practice such as disembowelment, beheading, or burning at the stake.

(Bradley A. MacLean and H.E. Miller, Jr., Tennessee’s Death Penalty Lottery, Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy, vol. 13, Summer 2018; Jonathan Mattise, Sides trade blame in Tennessee lethal injection drugs trial, Associated Press, July 9, 2018; Steven Hale, Tennessee’s Lethal Injection Experiment, The Nashville Scene, July 5, 2018.)