Data reveal system that imposes death penalty is arbitrary across Tennessee | Opinion

·3 min read

To supplement the Rev. Kevin Riggs' guest column, "It's back to normal in Tennessee … back to executing death row inmates,"

since the death penalty was reinstated in Tennessee in 1977, 193 people have been sentenced to death; 108 people have had their death sentences vacated; 85 people have had their death sentences sustained; 13 of the 85 have been executed; 28 died while on Death Row awaiting execution; and 44 are currently on Death Row and are subject to execution.

John Paul Black picks up brochures and a bumper sticker during a teach-in on the death penalty held by the Tennessee Coalition Against State Killings at Middle Tennessee State University on March 21, 2000.
John Paul Black picks up brochures and a bumper sticker during a teach-in on the death penalty held by the Tennessee Coalition Against State Killings at Middle Tennessee State University on March 21, 2000.

The 85 people who have received sustained death sentences did so for crimes they committed in the time frames as follows: three for crimes in 1977-1979; 38 for crimes committed in 1980-1989; 27 for crimes committed in 1990-1999; 13 for crimes committed in 2000-2009; three for crimes committed in 2010-2019; and none for crimes committed since 2019.

Ed Miller
Ed Miller

There are three Grand Divisions and 95 counties in Tennessee. Thirty-three counties are in the Eastern Grand Division; 41 counties are in the Middle Grand Division; and 21 counties are in the Western Grand Division. Of the 85 people with sustained death sentences, 22 were sentenced in the Eastern Grand Division; 21 were sentenced in the Middle Grand Division; and 42 were sentenced in the Western Grand Division. The smallest number of people receiving sustained death sentences (21) has occurred in the largest Grand Division (Middle, with 41 counties). The largest number of people receiving sustained death sentences (42) has occurred in the smallest Grand Division (Western, with 21 counties). There is clearly a disparity among the counties and Grand Divisions in the imposition of the death penalty. This is indicative of an arbitrary system.

For crimes committed during the last 22 years, since Jan. 1, 2000, only 16 people have received death sentences that have been sustained to date. These sentences were imposed in only nine of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

In addition, I have accounted for 337 people who have been convicted of multiple murders (two to six victims) and have not received a death sentence since 1977. On the other hand, 54 of the 85 people with sustained death sentences were convicted of single murders. Thus, the number of people who have been convicted of multiple murders and not sentenced to death is more than six times the number of people who have been convicted of single murders and sentenced to death. This is a denial of comparative proportionality in sentencing.

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As a resident of Williamson County, as are Gov. Bill Lee and the Rev. Riggs, and as a lawyer and a theological student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, I join Riggs in requesting the governor stop executions in Tennessee, to have a prayer service with death row inmates, and to commute their sentences to life sentences.

H.E. (Ed) Miller Jr. is an attorney in Brentwood.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Data show system that imposes death penalty is arbitrary across state

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