A divided nation continues to grapple with the death penalty

PRO DEATH PENALTY. A large percentage of students surveyed support the death penalty, despite the fact that they also believe innocent people have been sentenced to death.

Survey/Chloe McConnell

PRO DEATH PENALTY. A large percentage of students surveyed support the death penalty, despite the fact that they also believe innocent people have been sentenced to death.

By Michael Fanning, John Sevier Middle School

Michael McCormick was sentenced to death for murder in Chattanooga in 1985. He was convicted due to a strand of hair found at the crime scene. After twenty years awaiting his execution, however, the DNA of the hair turned out to belong to another person.

In 2018 alone, 25 people have been executed in the United States. Since the 1970s, over 1500 people have been executed across the country.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty. Instead of decreasing the number of executions, Tennessee has recently decided to increase the number. There are over fifty inmates currently waiting for their execution at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

The death penalty has recently become a major controversy in Tennessee and the nation because of the drugs used in a lethal injection. Scientists now believe that these drugs cause pain and suffering.

Robert Reburn is the Public Information Officer for the Tennessee Department of Correction. Reburn has been with the TODC for 12 years. He attended Northeast State Technical Community College, where he earned his Associate’s degree in Mass Communications and completed his Bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism at East Tennessee State University.

“While TDOC carries out the sentence,” Reburn said, “we do not play any role in the decision to pursue capital punishment during the trial process, nor do we play any role in the sentencing.”

Offenders on Tennessee’s death row, depending on their rank, can get special privileges from the guards. Every offender starts at level C, but after a year and a half, they can move up and get more privileges. Offenders are given three meals every weekday, with two meals on holidays. They are woken at 5:30 am and are in their cells at 9:00 pm.

Still, death row can be a tough place for inmates. Conditions in prison are sometimes not up to par and medical care has been reported to be inadequate in several prisons.

Jonathan Russell, a 7th grade student, is for the death penalty.

“I think that a person will only be sentenced to death if they have committed horrific crimes and are a danger to other inmates,” Russell said.

Eric Thomas, another 7th grade student, agreed.

“If they commit murder or manslaughter, then the electric chair or any form of execution is reasonable,” he said.

Not everybody believes the death penalty is the best way to punish criminals.

“I personally think that in some cases it is necessary, but we overuse it,” Loraine Carter, a 6th grade student, said.

Katrina Musick, a 7th grade science teacher, also disagrees with the death penalty.

“I do believe the victims’ opinions should determine its use,” Musick said. “I would not want it to happen for a crime against me, even murder.”

Those who are for the death penalty feel that certain crimes should be punishable by death. “Murder, rape, acts against your country or military should be punished by death,” Russell said. “Terrorism and child abuse, too.”

Mercy Adedokun, a 7th grade student, agrees.

“Killing should be punished with the death penalty,” Adedokun said, “Only lots of it, though.”

Stacy Rector, a reverend from Nashville, is against the death penalty. She is part of an organization called “Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty”. Rector attended Rhodes College in Memphis and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She graduated with a Masters of Divinity degree.

“During my time in both college and seminary, I became more aware of the connections between poverty, race and the criminal justice system, as well as how my faith informed my understanding of the system, including the death penalty,” Rector said. “Faced with the overwhelming problems that I saw, I also became increasingly aware of my responsibility to act for change.”

Rector believes that the death penalty is an inefficient, arbitrary and expensive way to have people executed.

“The death penalty is way more expensive than life without parole,” she said. “These cases tend to be more expense at the trial level, they take longer to be sorted and appealed. So, the dollars add up.”

The cost of a normal death penalty case is $46,791, but life in prison without parole costs $31,494 and life in prison with the possibility of parole costs $31,622.

“Those are taxpayer dollars that we’re not spending on preventing crime, like access to drug treatment programs, no healthcare, or helping at-risk kids and kids that have been abused or traumatized get help,” Rector said.

“Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty” is a major organization trying to stop the death penalty. This organization tries to achieve their goal by educating people. For example, it takes an average of 28 years for death row inmates to be executed.

“I think it is a little outrageous,” Carter said. “For some people who are older or have serious health problems, they would have already been dead before their death penalty.”

Musick agrees.

“That sounds more like life in prison than the death penalty,” she said. “Why so long?”

Thomas also believes it should be quicker.

“You wait 28 years; they could break out of their cell and kill people,” he said.

Reburn thinks it’s good that executions take a long time.

“All offenders, regardless of their crime and sentence, are entitled to appeal their conviction,” Reburn said. “The appeals process can take quite some time as the state meticulously pours over each case to evaluate if there is sufficient reason or evidence to overturn a conviction.”

Many people believe that the death penalty actually helps prevent crime. Research, however, doesn’t have a lot of evidence to show that this is true.

“Basically, researchers just simply can’t determine any effect either way,” Rector said.

Russell disagrees.

“[The death penalty is about ] justice,” he said. “If a person is just going to go around murdering people, they shouldn’t deserve to live.”

The Attorney General of Tennessee, Herbert Slatery III, is working on setting 9 new execution dates. This would seriously speed up the rate of executions in Tennessee.

“He is also seeking to appeal a local district attorney’s decision to reduce Abu Ali Abdur’ Rahman’s death sentence to life,” Rector said. “In August, Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk agreed to the sentence reduction because of the overt racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct at Abu’s trial. I find it very troubling that the Attorney General has decided to interfere in what I believe should be a local decision made by the prosecutor.”

Some people also believe that there is racial bias in the death penalty system. Racial bias is when a judge or prosecutor stacks a jury against someone due to their race.

According to the official website of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, the state has executed 86 African Americans and 50 whites. Of the people currently on death row in Tennessee, 28 are people of color, while 26 are white.

Lethal injection is the most common way to execute prisoners in the United States, but it has caused a lot of controversy recently.

“The state of Tennessee and many other states rely on three different drugs,” Rector said. “One of those drugs is called midazolam. It’s been particularly problematic in executions because it was never really intended to actually harm the person. You can still feel pain.”

The second drug makes the offender’s lungs fill with fluid. The third drug, Potassium Chloride, makes the offender feel excruciating pain, like being set on fire.

Russell disagrees with Rector. He believes that lethal injections are a good method of execution.

“Death is supposed to be painful,” Russell said. “If someone has done something really bad, then they deserve pain.”

Carter disagreed.

“Lethal injections are probably one of the worst ways to die,” Carter said. “That is horrible and probably does hurt to get drugs put into your body for you to die.”

The state of Tennessee is convinced that the drugs in lethal injections are humane.

“We feel confident in the studies we’ve been presented showing that the specific drugs used in executions here in Tennessee that the condemned do not feel pain and therefore do not suffer,” reburn said. “There have been no complications with any of our most recent executions.”

According to Rector, the death penalty should be replaced with life in prison.

“We have life without the possibility of parole in Tennessee, which means exactly what it says,” Rector said. “You will, in effect, die in prison. The other sentence is life with the possibility of parole, in Tennessee, which is one of the harshest life sentences in the country.”

Many states have sent innocent people to death row that were later found to be innocent. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are over a dozen cases of people who were executed that could have been innocent.

Some people with mental illness can’t help themselves when it comes to crime. Many people believe that they shouldn’t be sentenced to death, but instead need treatment. Even international law states they should not be sentenced to death. Still, people with mental illnesses have been sentenced to die.

Despite all the controversy surrounding the death penalty, the goal for each side of the debate is to keep people safe.

“Our unwavering mission is to enhance public safety in Tennessee,” Reburn said. “We strive to achieve this mission by operating safe and secure prisons, providing effective community supervision, and providing offenders with the necessary tools and resources they need to address the criminogenic factors that led them to commit their crimes.”

This story was originally published on The Sequoyah Scribe on March 13, 2020.