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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Bill aims to send death penalty appeals straight to Tennessee Supreme Court

A bill filed Friday in the state House aims to eliminate a step in death penalty appeals, sending cases directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, filed the bill that, if passed, could expedite death sentence appeals. 

Lamberth said Tennessee is 1 of fewer than 5 states in the country that requires midlevel or intermediate state appellate courts to hear death penalty cases.

"To me, if all these other states seem to feel like this is a good and just process, then I think it would very well for Tennessee as well," he said.

People who receive a death sentence here have automatic appeals to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and then a mandatory review at the Tennessee Supreme Court. Because of that process, a decision on the sentence is not final until the state's top court hears the case, Lamberth said.

There also are federal appeals, on which the bill would have no impact. Together the appeals process can extend for years or decades.

"I think it's just more fair to the defendants and the victims' families to get a decision from that top court as soon as possible," Lamberth said.

Lamberth said he "couldn't promise" that the new process would shorten the time between conviction and execution. It also has the potential, he said, to more quickly exonerate defendants who were wrongly convicted or allow new trials to happen sooner.

There are 63 people on death row, according to the Department of Correction, only 1 of whom is a woman.

Tennessee allows the death penalty via lethal injection and a secondary method, the electric chair. The last execution was in 2009 and since then carrying it out has been on hold because of legal challenges.

The Tennessee Supreme Court is now considering whether the state's single drug lethal injection protocol is constitutional. At oral arguments in October the justices had questions about better alternatives, but lawyers for the inmates said they did not have to provide one.

The court has not yet ruled on the issue. If it upholds the current law, it could green-light executions to resume in Tennessee.

Source: The Tennessean, January 6, 2017

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