Philip Ray Workman was saved in the nick of time. For now. Sentenced to die for killing a Memphis police officer in 1981, Workman was to be executed at 1 a.m. Wednesday. But at the last minute, the U.S. Supreme Court said Tuesday that the “stay of execution” issued by a lower court would remain. The stay, which temporarily halts Workman’s execution, had been granted on Friday by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. It means that Workman’s lawyers may have time to argue for another hearing. And it means they may be able to present new evidence that they think exonerates their client.
And so, an inmate approaches the brink of death, only to be snatched away. When the Supreme Court decision was made public, Workman, who had been stationed in the “death watch” cells of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution here, was moved to his regular cell. Given the political climate surrounding the death penalty, one can only assume that despite the reprieve, Workman has not escaped the fire.
A born-again Christian, Workman has liberally peppered his recent media interviews with references to his faith. Were he to be executed, he would become the second inmate put to death by the state since 1960.
Robert Glen Coe, executed last year, was the first. Convicted of the grisly rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in West Tennessee, Coe was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who was severely abused as a child. Death penalty opponents had a difficult time advocating for Coe. Not only was he, quite literally, crazy, but there also was little doubt he committed the heinous crime for which he was killed.
But Workman has been a different story. There is more than reasonable doubt about whether it was his bullet that killed the police officer. And he has presented a human dimension to the capital punishment process, one that was absent with Coe. The facts are these: When Workman decided to rob a Wendy’s restaurant in Memphis for drug money, an alarm was tripped. As he exited the Wendy’s, three police officers were waiting for him. The cops and Workman wrestled; Workman fired at them.
Workman acknowledges he shot one of them in the arm, but he claims he did not shoot the officer who died.
What’s more, two well-known pathologists agree that the bullet that killed the policeman could not have come from Workman’s gun. A key witness who testified in Workman’s trial that he saw Workman shoot and kill the officer has recanted his testimony.
Workman may very well have killed the policeman. But intelligent people can only conclude that there’s a chance he did not. That the state would consider killing a man when there is a pall of uncertainty about his conviction is uncivilized.
In fact, the death penalty itself is uncivilized. It is about retribution and revenge. It is not about justice.
Because Workman has consented to numerous interviews, and has talked so openly about his life and faith, Tennesseans have seen the humanitywith all its potentialabout to be extinguished. Sure, Workman has erred grievously, and putting him away was the right thing to do. But killing him should never have been an option.
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