The Commercial Appeal

Lawmaker apologizes for ‘hanging by tree’ execution suggestion

- Craig Shoup and Kirsten Fiscus Nashville Tennessean USA TODAY Network – Tennessee

A Tennessee state representa­tive is backpedali­ng after he suggested adding hanging by tree as a method of execution during discussion this week in Nashville about a bill concerning capital punishment.

Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-sparta, made the suggestion during a Criminal Justice Committee meeting Tuesday while lawmakers discussed HB1245 and an amendment to the bill that would allow for death by firing squad as an execution method in Tennessee.

“I was just wondering, could I put an amendment on that that would include hanging by a tree, also,” Sherrell asked during the meeting.

He then offered to sign on as a cosponsor to the bill.

Tennessee, like much of the South, has a traumatic history with hangings and particular­ly lynchings, which often took place publicly and without due process for the victim. Tennessee had 236 documented lynchings between 1877 and 1950, though there were likely more unreported cases, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Tennessee Department of Correction used hanging as its primary method of execution until 1913.

There are currently 46 inmates on death row in Tennessee — 45 men and one woman.

On Wednesday, the House Republican caucus press secretary released a statement from Sherrell in which he expressed regret over his “very poor judgement.”

“My exaggerate­d comments were intended to convey my belief that for the cruelest and most heinous crimes, a just society requires the death penalty in kind,” Sherrell said. “Although a victim’s family cannot be restored when an execution is carried out, a lesser punishment undermines the value we place on protecting life.”

Sherrell’s statement continues to say that his suggestion was meant to express support for families of victims.

“I sincerely apologize to anyone who may have been hurt or offended,” Sherrell said.

Bill sponsor: Firing squad an option

Rep. Dennis Powers, R-jacksboro, who sponsored the bill, told the committee the firing squad could be an option for the Department of Correction but would not be the first choice for execution.

Powers said a survey of death row inmates found the firing squad is their preferred form of execution, and they’d have a say in which method of execution is used.

“It’s the most humane, and quickest and most effective method,” Powers said. “Right now, we need to have another option for them.”

Powers told the committee that TDOC, which consists of 10 state-run and four privately run prisons, was not philosophi­cally opposed to the bill. Executions of death row inmates are carried out at Riverbend Maximum Security Institutio­n in Nashville.

The state is reviewing and revising their policies regarding executions for death row inmates after a report detailed failures in the TDOC’S lethal injection protocols.

When asked how an execution by firing squad would be carried out, Powers explained that the inmate would likely have a target placed over their heart and be restrained in a chair. TDOC staff members would line up with guns, one loaded with a blank to obscure who fired the fatal shot.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-knoxville, sounded off against the firing squad proposal.

“I feel like this is a move backward for Tennessee, this is absolutely not the direction we should be heading and if you read the descriptio­n of death by electric chair or by firing squad, it’s horrendous,” Johnson said. “I think we should be a civil society and cruel and unusual punishment is not acceptable in a civil society.”

Powers said the bill is not unconstitu­tional, adding that the bill creates another option.

“Maybe we need to think about the victims, and not the perpetrato­rs,” Powers said. “Some people, when they commit these heinous crimes, like first-degree murder, they give up their right to life.”

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-memphis, said he would not support the bill after detailing the pain caused by gunshots to the chest and heart that can shatter bones, the spine and make the death painful.

Powers reiterated the pain caused to a family of the inmate’s victim.

“I don’t have a whole lot of empathy for people who suffer pain during an execution,” Power said.

Community speaks out

In addition to some lawmakers speaking out against the proposed bill, community members have voiced their concern over adding a firing squad and hanging to its methods of execution.

“Everyone, no matter where they live, the color of their skin, or even the actions of their past, has been created in the image of God,” said the Rev. Kevin Riggs, pastor of Franklin Community Church.

“A bill calling to expand the death penalty by firing squad, and even lynching, is deplorable, immoral and takes us back to the dark days of Jim Crow. I’m appalled by the words of Representa­tive Sherrell. Suggesting firing squads and lynchings is unconscion­able. Tennessee should be moving in the direction of outlawing state sanctioned killings, instead of toward more killings and in more inhumane ways than already exist. There is no moral way to murder another person.”

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