Tennessee Death Penalty Cases to Skip Appeals Court

In this Oct. 13, 1999, file photo, Ricky Bell, then the warden at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., gives a tour of the prison’s execution chamber. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill Tuesday that sends cases where the death penalty has been handed down directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court for review, bypassing the state appeals court.

Laine Arnold, Lee’s spokeswoman, has said the governor was deferring to the Legislature’s will on the matter.  

In the past, Tennessee inmates who were sentenced to death had a right to directly appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, with the state’s high court automatically reviewing the appeals court’s decision.

The bill – which will apply to crimes committed after July 1 and therefore not affect the 58 inmates currently on Tennessee’s death row – will cause appeals in capital cases to skip the intermediate court.

Most other states that have the death penalty mandate an automatic review by their highest court after a trial court hands down a sentence of death, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The DPIC does not take a position on the practice, but has criticized the way it is carried out.

In that way, Tennessee is conforming to what many other states already have on their books.

“Listening to the legislative debate and reading the stories about it, I don’t think that’s what the Legislature thought it was doing, but in reality that is what it is doing,” Dunham told Courthouse News.

The Tennessee General Assembly sent the bill to Lee’s desk on April 1 after approving it 27-6 in the Senate and 72-22 in the House.

The offices of the governor and Representative Mary Littleton, R-Dickson, who sponsored the bill, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Dunham said it often takes decades for errors to be discovered in capital cases. The stakes, he added, are high and places like Shelby County – where Memphis sits – developed reputations of having high rates of prosecutorial misconduct.

“The implications of eliminating stages of appellate review differ from state to state and so it remains to be seen what the impact in terms of quality will be in Tennessee” Dunham said. “I think it’s always dangerous when legislatures elevate finality over accuracy in death penalty cases.”

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge John Everett Williams has said his court’s last four death penalty reviews took three to six months. Federal courts account for most of sometimes three decades in death penalty court reviews.

Tennessee executed three inmates last year. Four executions are scheduled this year.

The law is named for Dickson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Daniel Baker, who was killed last May. Two people are facing trial over Baker’s death.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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