Tennessee inmates ask court to stop scheduling executions

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Tony Von Carruthers

NASHVILLE, Tenn – A Memphis man is one of nine death row inmates asking a state court to stop scheduling executions.

Tony Carruthers was forced to represent himself at a trial in 1994 after he and another man were convicted of killing three people in an illegal drug trade in Memphis.

A court filing says the trial judge refused to appoint Carruthers an attorney after he ran off about a half-dozen with threats of lack of cooperation.

Supervisory Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry wrote a court never weighed in on whether Carruthers’ self-representation was constitutionally adequate.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery is seeking to set dates for eight other men. Four of the nine, including Carruthers, are African American. Attorneys for the inmates point that the justices could keep Tennessee moving in the opposite direction of the country as a whole or could join the ranks of most states in trending away from executions.

Farris Morris, an African American man convicted of a 1994 double murder and rape, was shackled during his sentencing trial in sight of an all-white panel of jurors, according to the filing that seeks to block an execution date for him. Two jurors noted the shackles in affidavits, but a court said after his conviction that nothing in the trial record showed he was visibly shackled in front of jurors, the filing states.

In the case of Pervis Payne, who is also African American, defense attorneys sought a court order last month to find out about evidence they now want tested for DNA: a bloody comforter, bloody sheets and a bloody pillow. Payne, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted of murder for the 1987 deaths of a woman and her 2-year-old daughter. Additionally, his attorney wrote that his execution would be illegal because he’s intellectually disabled.

Tennessee resumed executions in August 2018, and four of the six prisoners put to death since have chosen the electric chair, a method no other state has used since 2009.

Another execution is scheduled for February.

Slatery’s office has said the motion to set execution dates “is not a prerogative” and “is required by state law,” citing a state Supreme Court rule that the attorney general “shall file a motion requesting that this Court set an execution date” after the prisoner fails in at least one challenge within each of the three tiers of death penalty appeals.

The rule doesn’t specify how quickly the attorney general has to request execution dates.

Slatery requested all nine execution dates on the same day in September he sought to reinstate a death sentence for Abu-Ali Abudur’Rahman, a black man who was re-sentenced to life in prison in August after raising claims that racism tainted the jury selection process. The state Supreme Court has since stayed his execution date of April 2020.

Beyond the individual cases, the death row inmates’ attorneys contend that Tennessee’s application of the death penalty shows “the overt racism that led to the lynching of black citizens became ingrained in the justice system.”

They cited statistics that show African Americans make up 17% of the state’s population, but about half of its death row inmates.

There also is a geographic disparity: since 2001, only eight of Tennessee’s 95 counties have imposed sustained death sentences. Almost half of the men on death row are from Shelby County, which includes Memphis and is Tennessee’s largest county, but only includes less than 14% of the state population, the filing said.

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