NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee appears ready to sign into law a measure that could speed up the implementation of a death sentence.
The change would come at a point when Tennessee has resumed putting inmates to death after a nearly decade-long hiatus, even though U.S. executions are hovering near historically low levels.
The Senate voted 26-6 Thursday for Republican Sen. John Stevens’ legislation to skip Tennessee’s Court of Criminal Appeals and provide automatic state Supreme Court death penalty reviews. One Republican voted against it.
Lee spokeswoman Laine Arnold says the governor is deferring to the Legislature’s will on the bill, indicating he’ll likely sign it.
The legislation is named for Dickson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Daniel Baker, who was shot and killed in May before his police cruiser was set on fire with his body inside. Prosecutors have said they’re seeking death sentences for two people in the case that still hasn’t gone to trial.
Baker’s family applauded from the gallery when the House passed the bill earlier this week.
The proposal drew criticisms from Court of Criminal Appeals Judge John Everett Williams, who said his court takes less than a year to go through death penalty reviews, and the last four only took three to six months. Federal courts account for the vast majority of the time it takes for death penalty cases to wend through the appeals process.
Stevens says only Alabama has a similar intermediate court review of death penalty cases and that the state Constitution guarantees victims a speedy trial and conclusion to their cases.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Glen Casada also have deemed the bill a way to achieve more timely justice.
“We forget about the victims in this conversation today,” said Stevens, a Huntingdon attorney. “We’re focused upon the perpetrators.”
Tennessee executed three men in 2018 – one by lethal injection and two who chose the electric chair, arguing the injection would be a prolonged, tortuous death.
Four more Tennessee executions are scheduled this year, starting in May.
Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson joined with Democrats in voting against the bill. He said that, at times, people who are innocent will accept a life without parole sentence rather than take their chances with a possible death sentence. He argued that could increase if another guardrail is removed through the bill.
“Government is fallible,” said Dickerson, a Nashville lawmaker. “And if you put somebody to death, there are no do-overs.”
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said the bill would remove an intermediate appeal for those on death row that others with lesser offenses will still have.
Williams, the appellate judge, has argued that that issue would add more challenges in the federal court system.
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, according to the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which opposes the bill.
Three of Tennessee’s 202 death penalties imposed since 1977 have resulted in exonerations, the group has said.