It might seem unnecessary to ask for a moratorium on the death penalty in a state that has executed exactly one prisoner in the last 40 years. But, as the anti-death penalty advocates running around the statehouse have pointed out, camped on Tennessee’s death row is the 10th largest population of death row inmates in the country.
Among the 101 men and two women on Tennessee’s death row is Oscar Frank Smith, who eviscerated a stepson on the way to murdering his estranged wife and another stepson. And Donald Middlebrooks, who tortured and urinated on a black teenager before killing him in a racially motivated attack. And Paul Reid, who shot and killed five fast food workers and slit the throats of another two.
What to do with these types of vermin is a question as old as the Bible. Unfortunately, left to the hands of men, state-sponsored killing doesn’t always work out very well. Over half of the death sentences issued in Tennessee are overturned on appeal. And of those overturned on appeal, 75 percent are resentenced to something less than death.
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 120 inmates scheduled for execution have been released from America’s death rows, though none, thus far, in Tennessee. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Paul House, an East Tennessee man convicted of killing Carolyn Muncey. DNA evidence and witness testimony now link Muncy’s rape and death to her husband, Hubert, according to various news reports, including a March 31, 2005, Scene cover story.
It’s cases like House’s that have enticed groups as varied as the American Bar Association and NAACP to argue for a death penalty moratorium. It was probably unthinkable to suggest a moratorium four years ago, when state Rep. Rob Briley, a Davidson County Democrat, sponsored moratorium legislation only to be pilloried by the Fraternal Order of Police.
As Briley indicates, attitudes about the death penalty have evolved in four short years. One day soon, it might be abolished altogether, leaving the ultimate justice for killers like Don Middlebrooks and Oscar Frank Smith in the hands of an entity less fallible than humankind. —William Dean Hinton
Last Sunday, festivities marking the one-year anniversary of Radio Free Nashville were interrupted by the violent thunderstorms that plowed across the state. Torrential rain drove the station’s supporters for cover inside the studio headquarters, while lightning crackled perilously near the hand-raised station tower. In other words, it was just like old times. If there’s a dark cloud in the sky, it’ll find Nashville’s low-power community radio station, which went on the air exactly one year ago this week in the wake of a flash flood.
But no storm has managed yet to knock WRFN 98.9-LPFM off its perch on a ridge near Bellevue in Pasquo, Tenn. For an operation that runs on a shoestring, broadcasts on a measly 100 watts of power and boasts not a single paid member, the station has proved surprisingly hardy during its first year on the air. It has weathered legal challenges, transmitter crises and technical snafus. It has just signed a deal that will make the station available by cell phone over the Mobile Broadcast Network. Most important, it has given Nashville a rowdy, scrappy alternative to the kind of consolidated cookie-cutter radio that is driving listeners to satellite service.
At the moment, there’s little way to gauge Radio Free Nashville’s listenership except anecdotally. But even though its signal barely reaches West End, it already has a loyal audience via the Internet, documented by hundreds of emails to various shows. On RFN, listeners can find NASCAR, wrestling and fantasy sports shows; news for Nashville’s transgender community; local public-affairs programming in three languages; and every kind of music from indie rock, funk and zydeco to Kristi Rose’s patented “pulp country.” All of it, except the morning broadcast of Pacifica’s syndicated Democracy Now
news show, is programmed and provided by Nashville volunteers.
In addition, the unabashedly liberal station has become a lightning rod for local progressives who have finally found a sympathetic ear. It’s telling that two RFN personalities, Chris Lugo and Howard Switzer, have entered the U.S. senate and gubernatorial race respectively this year as Green Party candidates. But there is plenty of programming on Radio Free Nashville with no political content at all—just a lively mix of community voices and interests you won’t hear anywhere else, except maybe over your neighbor’s fence.
To keep those voices on the air, RFN co-founder Ginny Welsch has identified two main goals for 2006. One, not surprisingly, is fund-raising. The other is simply to get more Nashvillians involved, either as on-air talent or volunteers. To help in either capacity—or just to wish the station a happy birthday—contact www.radiofreenashville.org
or call 662-8558. If nothing else, take some comfort in knowing that one little corner of the public airwaves still belongs to the public. —Jim Ridley