Tennessee mulls 1 less court review before executions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As Tennessee ramps up for another round of executions, the Republican-led Legislature is considering eliminating one level of state court review of death sentences.

A bill named for fallen Dickson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Daniel Baker would provide for automatic reviews of death penalty cases by the state Supreme Court, skipping over Tennessee’s Court of Criminal Appeals. The same concept failed two years ago. This year, it has the support of the Senate and House speakers.

After Baker’s fatal shooting in May, prosecutors have said they’re seeking death sentences for two people still awaiting trial in a gruesome case in which Baker’s police cruiser was set on fire with his body inside. Dickson County Sheriff Jeff Bledsoe afterward pledged to prod government leaders to look into changing the legal system with victims in mind.

Tennessee was one of three states to resume executions in 2018 after long breaks; meanwhile, the 25 death sentences carried out nationwide last year remained near historic lows, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Tennessee executed three men in 2018 — one died by lethal injection and two chose the electric chair, arguing the injection would be a prolonged, tortuous death.

Four more Tennessee executions are scheduled this year, starting in May.

In sending death sentence appeals to an intermediate court first, Tennessee stands alongside Alabama as an outlier, said Jeff Cherry, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a group that opposes the legislation.

House Speaker Glen Casada and Senate Speaker Randy McNally both hailed the bill as a means of achieving more timely justice. Republican Sen. John Stevens, a bill sponsor, said House sponsor GOP Rep. Mary Littleton added Baker’s name.

“The penalty can only be truly effective if it is carried out deliberately and efficiently,” McNally said. “Justice delayed 20 and 30 years is not justice at all. This bill would preserve due process, provide timely justice and restore the death penalty as a meaningful deterrent.”

Before the proposal crashed in 2017, a district attorneys general group backing the bill told lawmakers that death sentence reviews were added to the Court of Criminal Appeals’ duties in the early 1990s.

A public defenders group, meanwhile, testified that year that the change would only save less than a year on death penalty cases on average. Federal reviews would remain the same.

Currently, 13 of the 58 people on Tennessee’s death row were sentenced in the 1980s.

Cherry said trial court death penalties in Tennessee are overturned in more than half of cases, with most reversals coming from the Court of Criminal Appeals. That typically involves a new sentencing hearing, possibly leading to new plea negotiations and changes to life without parole sentences, Cherry added.

Three of Tennessee’s 202 death penalties imposed since 1977 have resulted in exonerations, Cherry said.

“The better policy result, particularly in a death penalty case is to get the right result, not to get a fast result,” Cherry said. “If that takes an extra level of review, so be it. It is a further safeguard in a system where the government imposes the ultimate sanction on one of its citizens.”

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro criticized the timing of the bill, given that the Legislature and new Republican Gov. Bill Lee are pledging to reform the state’s criminal justice system.

Lee gave no indication how he would lean on the issue, saying Tuesday he hasn’t seen the proposal yet and will review it.

“I think it’ll make the work of the Supreme Court harder,” Yarbro said. “And it will not save any time or money for anyone.”

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