It’s been more than 50 years since Gov. Frank Clement worked to abolish Tennessee’s death penalty. Though his efforts narrowly failed in the state legislature, Clement’s message rings true still.
“Can anyone deny that human judgment is inadequate?” He asked in his 1965 speech to the state legislature.
The dubious adequacy of our judgment was front-and-center recently, in this instance the impact of racial bias in the sentencing of Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman. District Attorney Glenn Funk acknowledged prosecutorial misconduct in the 1987 sentencing. The DA reached an agreement with Abdur’Rahman’s attorney to vacate the death penalty and have him serve a life sentence instead (consecutive to three other life sentences). Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins approved the deal on Aug. 30.
Many studies have found that racial bias has played a role in the uneven application of the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center has reported results in line with our district attorney’s office, particularly when considering the race of the victim.
“Racial bias against defendants of color and in favor of white victims has a strong effect on who is capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and executed,” reports the DPIC.
I think that in 2019, we might describe that as a blinding glimpse of the obvious.
Defendants are punished more severely if the victim is white, which is indeed an unfair application of the death penalty. But the unfair application of the penalty does not necessarily mean that the conviction itself is unfair. I think the DPIC data speaks more to the unfair treatment of the victims than the unfair treatment of the criminal. If anything, these findings support the championing of fairness for all victims, regardless of the color of their skin.
The DPIC also points out disparities with regard to the racial makeup of people convicted of capital crimes. The group points toward racial bias in those convicted, but we can’t say that Tennessee mirrors the findings of the DPIC. When you look at the map of their data on the racial breakdown of those executed on death row, Tennessee has executed substantially more white death row inmates than members of any other race. This holds true for other states as well, including Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Georgia and Alabama.
But we shouldn’t get lost in the analysis of data and forget the lives that the data represent. Viewing capital punishment as a data point or as a line item on a governmental budget makes it easy to forget that we are considering the value of human life.
Do we have the moral right and authority to commit people to death for their crimes? Are we absolutely certain that our judicial system is fair and blind to bias, as it was designed to be?
There is much disagreement over whether people convicted of murder deserve to die for their crimes. But we all agree on one thing: The victims most certainly did not deserve to die. Our debates too often forget the horrific crimes that put these criminals on death row. Victims cannot speak for themselves, and as a society, we must speak for them.
Many people say that the death penalty reflects negatively on our society — that Americans’ willingness to sentence criminals to death is a sign of brutality and ignorance. We will never be able to resolve this debate without first addressing the violent crime in our communities and the inequities of our system of justice. We must make sure that we don’t imprison or put to death an innocent person, and seek justice for every innocent victim.
Gov. Clement had it right. Human judgment is indeed inadequate.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.