National news reports yesterday made it appear Tennessee has a 100%
reversal rate on death penalty cases, as measured in a nationwide study by a
team of lawyers and criminologists at Columbia University. A New York
Times article on the study, showing 100% reversal rates in Tennessee, Kentucky
and Maryland, failed to mention that those states each had three or fewer
completed federal appeals in death penalty cases during the study period,
which ended in 1995.
Columbia law professor James S. Liebman said in an interview with The
Tennessean yesterday that the study, which he headed, included just one such
case from Tennessee, which resulted in a federal judge's reversal of a death
sentence in 1995. Richard Houston was sentenced to death for murdering a
Knoxville service station owner in 1978, but Senior U.S. District Court Judge
John T. Nixon reversed his death sentence in 1994, based on legal instructions
the judge gave to the jury in the trial, and a federal appeals court affirmed
the decision in 1995.
Liebman said he cautioned reporters who received advance copies of the
study's findings not to draw conclusions from the small numbers of cases from
While Tennessee had only one capital case resolved in the federal courts by
1995, Liebman said Tennessee had "a significant number" of death
sentences, 41%, reversed by state court judges during that period.
"One thing that stood out to me about Tennessee was the large number of
cases that were reversed due to ineffective assistance of counsel (poor
lawyering at the trial level)," Liebman said.
The study found errors by defense lawyers were the reasons for 37% of the
death penalty reversals nationwide, followed by faulty instructions given to
juries by the trial judge (20%) and misconduct by prosecutors or police in
suppressing evidence that would have helped the defendant (19%). Tennessee has
sharply increased the amount the state provides to indigent defendants for
lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses since the mid-1990s.
The data cited by The New York Times as the basis for Tennessee's
"100%" reversal rate reflected only the number of death sentences
reversed by federal appeals courts in the state through 1995.
Tennessee has been slower than most other death-penalty states to move
cases through the appeals process. Tennessee carried out its 1st execution in
40 years in April, when Robert Glen Coe was put to death for kidnapping,
raping and murdering an 8-year-old girl in 1979. The state has 95 men and 2
women awaiting execution for murders committed since the state's current
death-penalty statute took effect in 1977.
In the only Tennessee death penalty cases that have made it all the way
through the federal appeals process other than Coe, 3 defendants have received
new trials -- resulting in life prison sentences for 2 men and a new death
sentence for a 3rd -- and a 4th man is awaiting a new trial. A federal appeals
court in Cincinnati heard arguments May 30 on whether to order a federal trial
judge to give Tennessee death row inmate Philip Workman a full hearing on
newly discovered evidence that, his lawyers say, shows he did not fire the
shot that killed a Memphis police officer in 1981.