In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute a prisoner who lives with an intellectual disability, but the Tennessee Supreme Court subsequently declared there to be no legal mechanism for prisoners already on death row to challenge their sentences. The state court urged Tennessee lawmakers to take up the issue.
I am amazed to report that they finally did.
G.A. Hardaway, a Democratic state representative from Memphis and a member of the Tennessee Black Caucus, sponsored a bill to allow death row prisoners with intellectual disabilities to request an alternate sentence. In April, by nearly unanimous votes, the legislature passed the bill, and Mr. Lee signed it into law. On Nov. 23, Judge Shahan vacated Mr. Payne’s death sentences and replaced them with two life sentences. A hearing on Dec. 13 will determine whether they will run concurrently or consecutively.
A decision in favor of concurrent sentences would make Mr. Payne eligible for parole in about six years — still far short of the exoneration his supporters hope for. But there is cause for jubilation anytime a human being leaves death row and lives to fight another day. “What a difference it makes to be able to wake up in the morning and not have to feel like you have to fight for your life,” Mr. Payne’s lead lawyer, Kelley Henry, a federal public defender, told WPLN’s Samantha Max.
That has happened more than once in red states recently. Last month, a Nashville judge approved a plea deal that removed Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman from death row on grounds of “overt racial bias” during jury selection in his 1987 murder trial. And Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, a Republican and a proponent of the death penalty, last month commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones to life without parole. His decision came just hours before Mr. Jones was set to be executed.
The pressure brought to bear on Mr. Stitt before his “prayerful consideration” of the case came from more than just the usual death penalty opponents. The state’s parole board had already recommended — twice — that Mr. Jones’s sentence be commuted to life in prison. Influential conservatives such as Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Timothy Head, the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, also urged the governor to commute the sentence. And students across the state walked out of their classrooms in protest of the impending execution.
Mr. Jones’s execution would have followed less than a month after the execution of John Marion Grant, the first in Oklahoma since 2015. Mr. Grant’s death by lethal injection on Oct. 28 was accompanied by several minutes of vomiting and convulsions. The horrific spectacle of his death fueled renewed criticism of the state’s execution method as a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
“This is probably the end of the death penalty in the state of Oklahoma,” Jim Olsen, a Republican state representative and an advocate for capital punishment, told Public Radio Tulsa.