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 several states.
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.