Tennessee executions deliberate, avoidable

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

People in the media are good about beating up on themselves. We strive for perfection in delivering the truth.

It was so today as it again appeared that the State of Tennessee would execute one of its inmates and the inmate's side of the story should be told as their spokesmen issue press releases.

The most common denominator in news is the ultimate truth that we will all die. Few, if any, will know when. Obituaries are the best read columns. The most newsworthy crashes include a fatality.

And so the media must report on the executions. If our readers don't care, they'll turn the page. That's true for cartoons, too.

Along the way toward execution, Tennessee will create a media pool of reporters selected through a deliberate system and while I've not witnessed an execution, Philip Workman's case reminds me of a couple of other cases.

Gregory Thompson, a death row inmate at Riverbend, stabbed to death a former reporter of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette just to get her car so he could go to Georgia with his girlfriend. I've worked closely with survivors of his victim.

Daryl Holton shot his three sons and their half sister -- two at a time through their backs in a Shelbyville repair shop. He tricked them into thinking he'd take them Christmas shopping during visitation. He hates his ex-wife for cheating on him and has said the children are better off dead than with their mother.

I've been one of the journalists selected to be in the witness pool for the execution of Daryl Holton. His execution has been postponed several times.

Gregory Thompson's execution has been postponed, too. It's been more than 21 years since Brenda Lane was stabbed with a rusty knife in the outskirts of Manchester.

In both cases, defense attorneys have argued it's immoral to execute them because of their mental conditions. Both men have been in prison so long that their mental conditions have been affected.

One might argue that their criminal acts proved they suffer from an aberrant mental condition.

It might also be argued that Holton's case shows that revenge is its own punishment, a point for jurors and victims' relatives who may live with the realization if they wanted someone dead.

Some of Holton's relatives are driven to save him. Others ponder the line between exceptional intelligence and madness.

The chief prosecutor in this district says that if anybody on death row deserves execution it's Holton. Survivors of Brenda Lane seem to want Thompson to just go away. They'll never forget, but they'd like closure and peace of mind that it's over.

Sure, the media brings it back up, and a familiar question returns. When will the story end?

More than a good faith effort has been taken to ensure that an innocent man won't die in these cases.

More than a good faith effort has been taken to be sure that death row inmates won't feel pain when they're executed by lethal injection. Remarkably, Holton selected electrocution. He had the option because his crime predates the shift to lethal injection. His choice might have been predictable, given his history of confounding his defense at trial and an apparent death wish for himself.

Holton was included in the governor's reprieve to be sure electrocution is as swift and painless as possible. Those who complain that new procedures and assurances are worse than the old ones ought to realize the result is the same and the alternative of life in prison may be even more cruel and inhumane.

Since becoming a member of the now-disbanded media pool for Holton's execution last year, I've concluded the system exists and should proceed, but jurors should fully understand the consequences of their decisions when asked to consider the death penalty.