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Focus on the Law: The death penalty in Tennessee

By Sharon Frankenberg,
Attorney at Law

When Tennessee became a state in 1796, its Constitution allowed capital punishment. As was the case in those times, this punishment was typically accomplished by hanging. Hangings often resulted in death by slow strangulation or even decapitation of the condemned. In 1913, due to a wave of abolitionist sentiment across the nation, capital punishment was repealed in Tennessee only to be reintroduced in 1916. Electrocution became preferred to hanging to death as being a more humane method of capital punishment. The electric chair was first used to electrocute an inmate in Tennessee on July 13, 1916. From 1916 until 1960, 125 inmates were executed by electrocution. The United States Supreme Court in its 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision declared that the imposition of the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, unconstitutional. Due to this decision, there were no inmates sentenced to death from 1972 to 1978. In 1979 the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a new death penalty statute. In 1998, state law made lethal injection the method of execution in Tennessee for those committing a capital crime after January 1, 1999.

In 2000, the law was amended to allow inmates who committed their crimes prior to January 1, 1999 to choose electrocution rather than lethal injection.  This was the choice of Daryl Keith Holton convicted of killing his 3 sons and their half-sister.  He became the first electrocution in Tennessee since 1960.  Only 5 other executions have taken place since 1960 and those were all by lethal injection. Interestingly enough, state law requires that the Commissioner of Correction must keep and maintain “an electrical apparatus, together with all necessary appliances sufficient for the infliction of punishment of death” in a permanent death chamber within a penitentiary of the state.  There are still inmates on death row who could choose electrocution so it requires the maintenance of an electric chair.

As of December 31, 2013, Tennessee Department of Corrections incarcerated a total of 19,345 males and 1,461 females in their adult institutions.  Of these inmates, 76 are on Death Row.  The only female on Death Row is Christa Gail Pike who, at age 18, brutally murdered her purported romantic rival on the UT Agriculture Campus in Knoxville back in 1995.  Pike is housed at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. She is now 37 years old and has been on Death Row for 18 years.  Except for a few who are housed at Morgan County Correctional Complex, the male inmates on Death Row are housed in a separate unit at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.  The youngest inmate on Death Row is John Freeland, 31.  He was sentenced to death by lethal injection for kidnapping a 61 year old woman, shooting her in the head while she lay in a ditch and then stealing her car in Henderson, Tennessee.  He has been on Death Row since May 2011.  The oldest inmate on Death Row is Jerry Ray Davidson, 70.  Davidson was sentenced to death for kidnapping, killing and decapitating a woman he met in a bar in Dickson, Tennessee.  He has been on death row for almost 17 years.

Sharon Frankenberg is an experienced attorney licensed in Tennessee since 1988. Her office number in Knoxville is (865)539-2100.

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