Friday, June 1, 2007

Workman Execution

By Michael August

At approximately 1:20 AM on Wednesday, May 9, Philip Workman was murdered at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison by representatives of the state of Tennessee, executed for a crime that the current evidence shows he did not commit. Our governor had the authority to stop this wrongdoing, but chose not to do so. It is a tragedy, not only for Workman and his family and friends, but also for the State of Tennessee.

The more one looks at this case, the more it stinks. Workman's crime, twenty-five years ago, was robbing a fast food restaurant at gunpoint. As the police were apprehending him, Lt. Ron Oliver was shot and killed.

Philip Workman's spiritual advisor, Rev. Joe Ingle, refers to the myth that he was a cop killer as "an utter and complete fabrication." Kelley Henry, an assistant public defender on Workman's case had this to say: "I have never experienced a case with this many twists and turns, cover-ups and lies...It started out with police uncovering a horrible truth, that one of their officers had accidentally killed one of their own." She is convinced that if Philip Workman had received a new trial based on the existing evidence, he would have won. She says, "Essentially, if the evidence is hidden long enough, the state wins."

But what kind of victory has the state won? A victory, by definition, is something to be proud of. This is shameful. At a time in our history when "values" have assumed a prominent place in our rhetoric, what values are exemplified by a knowingly wrongful execution?

I'm always amazed and horrified at the tenaciousness of the state's prosecutors in appealing court rulings that are designed to ensure that fairness and justice are applied to the death penalty process. What follows is the text of a message that I sent to Governor Bredesen on the morning of May 8, upon learning that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had vacated the temporary stay of execution that had been granted by a lower federal court:

"This is very upsetting. How much evidence of innocence will it take for you to step up and do the right thing by granting a reprieve to Philip Workman? The prosecutor's main witness has come forward and admitted that he lied. Five of the jurors have stated that they never would have voted for the death penalty if all the facts had been presented at the time of the original trial. Ballistics experts have testified that the bullet that killed did not come from Workman's gun. Even the prosecuting attorney and Lt. Oliver's daughter have requested clemency for Philip Workman. What is it going to take? The courts are obviously incapable of making a decision in this matter based on common sense and fairness. It's up to you as chief executive to put some sanity into this situation. You know what the right thing to do is--it's very obvious that this case calls for clemency from the Governor. I'm counting on you."

I'm sure Phil Bredesen received many similar messages. He failed us in his duty as Governor, probably for political reasons.

What now? There are others on death row who have been wrongfully convicted. There are the mentally ill who have fallen through the gaping cracks in our system of care and wound up on death row. Is killing them all the solution?

Some of the dangers of the death penalty are that, to some degree, it desensitizes us to the plight of others by denying their humanity; it feeds our worst instincts and sets a very bad example for our children.

Simply stated, the death penalty is wrong, and should be abolished. It does not deter crime, nor does it provide closure for victims' families. In addition, it creates a new set of innocent victims in the families and friends of the condemned. The death penalty is barbaric, out-dated and unacceptable. A first step toward eliminating this failed public policy could be to declare an open-ended moratorium on the death penalty. This would allow plenty of time, for those who feel the need, to do studies and come to the same conclusions.

There have now been three executions in Tennessee since the national moratorium was lifted. The guilt in all three cases was questionable. I Can't help remembering the old Bob Dylan line, "How many deaths will it take 'til he knows that too many people have died?" How many will it take, Governor Bredesen?


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