The Tennessee Department of Correction announced Thursday afternoon that death row inmate Michael W. Howell had died, of natural causes, at the age of 54.
Here are the details on Howell, from the department:
Howell, 54, was convicted of First Degree Murder and Grand Larceny in Shelby County. He was sentenced to death on October 26, 1989 for the 1987 murder of Alvin Kennedy, a Memphis convenience store clerk.
Howell was also convicted of First Degree Murder and sentenced to death in Oklahoma for the November 2, 1987 shooting death of Sgt. Charlene Calhoun.
His death was somewhat timely, coming just as we were discussing Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's Tennessean op-ed arguing that Tennessee needs to resume its executions of the condemned.
Despite talk of protecting "innocent human life from sociopaths and predators," the debate over the death penalty does not force us to choose between executing "sociopaths and predators" and releasing them back into the general population. The debate, if it's being had by remotely rational people, is about whether the state should execute these people or keep them locked up until they die on their own.
We know Ramsey's answer:
This is what Tennesseans demand. They are tired of living in fear seeing men and women convicted of truly heinous crimes sit on death row for years dying of old age or disease rather than lethal injection. We have a system that we are confident in, and we have a process that is humane and painless.
Why are Tennesseans living in fear of men and women who are sitting on death row? Do they think these people will get out? Does Ramsey? It's not clear.
In any case, no one is suggesting that Michael Howell should have been released. No one that should be taken seriously, anyway. And now he is dead.
So the question is: Was justice served in Michael Howell's case?
He was convicted of two murders. He was sent to death row in 1989, and he sat there for 24 years until he died.
The death penalty debate is not about whether this man deserved to walk free again. The debate is this: Was Michael Howell brought to justice, or did he get off easy because nature killed him before the state of Tennessee could?