A special report by the Tennessean found that half of the 151 death sentences of Tennessee defendants since 1977 have been overturned after appeal.
The sentences were overturned primarily because of trial errors or incompetent defense attorneys, the article read.
“Those figures should be disturbing to anyone,” a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights told the Tennessean. “It tells you that very often the passions of the moment become involved at death penalty trials.”
Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers said the reversal rate of death sentences indicated the system’s willingness to ensure fairness, even if it means further delays, the article read.
“It doesn’t say that someone is innocent, as some of the abolitionists might want to report,” Summers told the Tennessean. “Just because a case is sent back for resentencing because of evidentiary error has nothing to do with a person being guilty or being innocent, but it might say that the system is working, and we on the prosecutorial side like that.”
Innocence is an important issue, defense lawyers say, but the large majority of the reversals focus on the fairness of the sentence rather than guilt, the article read.
Prosecutors say it’s unfair to draw sweeping conclusions from cases that have been retried and resentenced a decade or more after the crime. As the cases become more dated, witnesses move away, die or become forgetful and evidence gets lost, they said.
The immediate past president of the Tennessee Bar Association, Katie Edge, said the data supported her view that Tennessee should halt executions until a study of the system can be completed.
“The appellate system appears to work-that’s the good news,” Edge told the Tennessean. “The bad news is that these cases got there to begin with. … Once our justice system is applied, it works pretty well. But the number of cases overturned on appeal tells me the system is broken down somewhere.”
Jared Porter is BCE’s reporting intern.