A Public Enemy 

Justice didn’t exactly triumph last week when the Tennessee Supreme Court stayed the execution of Philip Workman. Instead, like the condemned inmate, it narrowly survived.

That development gives us both cause for celebration and concern. We are delighted that the Supreme Court ordered, at long last, a hearing of the new evidence suggesting Workman may not have committed a crime eligible for punishment by death.

Yet we are troubled by how close (42 minutes) our state came to carrying out what may prove to have been an irreversible miscarriage of justice. Even more, we are sickened by the conduct of many state officials—Attorney General Paul Summers in particular—who demonstrated utter indifference to the very justice they are charged to uphold.

Our opposition to state killing is long and documented. The usual arguments still apply, yet are almost beside the point here. Even many who favor executions were troubled by the Workman case. Tellingly, fewer than 10 people showed up at Riverbend Prison Thursday night to support Workman’s killing.

It’s not difficult to appreciate why, since recent evidence creates serious doubt as to whether Workman fired the shot that killed Memphis police Lt. Ronald Oliver. The state’s only purported eyewitness now says he perjured himself under pressure from the authorities. In fact, he says he and his car weren’t even at the crime scene, and police photographs bolster his claim. Moreover, a crucial X ray of Oliver’s body that somehow disappeared for nearly 20 years seems to support the opinions of some ballistics experts that the fatal shot did not come from Workman’s gun. Five jurors from Workman’s 1982 trial say they would not have voted for the death penalty had they known of the new evidence.

At the very least, this body of information should have troubled state justice officials. It should have made them question whether they were preparing to execute a man for a lesser crime that, under the law, was not eligible for the death penalty. But Summers and his office treated the evidence as merely an annoyance. Even as each new revelation sowed doubt in the minds of many Tennesseans, Summers maintained his role as chief agitator for execution.

Further stacking the deck, Assistant Attorney General Glenn Pruden acted as a death-penalty lobbyist, sending e-mails suggesting that pro-law enforcement groups begin a letter-writing campaign to newspapers in support of Workman’s execution. Meanwhile, Summers served as adviser to the state’s parole board, which is supposed to act impartially. Not surprisingly, with a scowling Summers sitting in the room like a puppeteer, the board dismissed Workman’s clemency petition as if the hearing were just a formality. When one woman gave testimony that undercut the state’s case, a board member even suggested arrogantly that she had been coached.

Once set in motion, the state’s enforcement machinery focuses squarely on killing. The machine is almost impossible to stop, ethereal in its operation.

Prison officials, for example, decreed (until a court overruled them) that Workman’s minister could not remain with him until his execution. They pettily denied Workman’s request that the traditional last meal be a pizza delivered to homeless people downtown. Metro police and state troopers trotted out a curiously large array of firepower Thursday night. Following procedure, they also methodically searched death-penalty protestors and their vehicles, as if they feared the candle-wielding vigil keepers (who weren’t allowed beyond a fence 100 yards from the prison) might attempt to spring the condemned prisoner. In one of those revealing little touches, a Correction Department press release even misspelled Workman’s first name.

Given the relentless momentum generated by the state, only a miracle halted Workman’s execution. It’s scary that it took one. But it may take more, until we have a system based more on justice than enforcement.

Toward that end, we believe that Tennesseans deserve an attorney general who is more than a callous cogwheel in the machinery of murder. Like Philip Workman, our state’s highest law enforcement official is also judged. And we condemn his recent actions as the work not of a public servant but a public enemy.

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