The death penalty, which typically involves lethal injection and is still legal in Tennessee, is used only for the most serious crimes. When a jury convicts someone and asks for the death penalty, that jury is saying not only that the person did commit the crime but that rehabilitation in prison is not possible. The inmate then goes to death row and may spend years waiting for the sentence to be carried out.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like for an innocent person to sit on death row? Have you considered the nightmare of hearing the conviction announced when you know you didn't do anything wrong and don't deserve the charges - but now the state is going to put you to death based on errors made in court?
It's very difficult to even comprehend. However, frighteningly, it's something that has been going on for years.
According to The Innocence List, there have been 157 people freed from death row, and that's just looking at all those who have been released since 1973. Some were pardoned, some were acquitted, and some had the charges dropped. But all had one thing in common: They had to wait for their own execution when it wasn't deserved.
So, how does Tennessee itself stack up? There have been three different people who were sentenced and then released.
The first was a man who was sentenced in 1987. He spent 20 years on death row and was finally acquitted in 2007.
The second was a man who was convicted in 1986. He was on death row even longer, serving 23 years before finally having the charges dismissed in 2009.
The third was a man who was convicted and sentenced in 1994. His charges were dismissed in 2011, after 17 years behind bars.
On a national basis, the amount of time served varies widely from case to case. Some people were only behind bars for a year or two. Others served 30 years or more; multiple people were locked up for 39 years, making it almost four decades before they were released.
How many others are waiting?
The question that these cases raise, of course, is simple: How many other innocent people just have not been freed from death row? Releases are still happening, with the most recent coming earlier this year. How many people will be released in the years and decades to come? How many were executed when they were innocent, before they could be released?
The fact that innocent people are convicted and sentenced this often shows the need for a top-notch criminal defense when facing the most serious charges. This is underscored by the fact that even those who were released had lost years and even decades of their lives, waiting in jail on charges that would eventually be dropped.