The full Senate voted 27 to 6 on Thursday to reform the state’s death penalty appeals process by expediting cases straight to the Tennessee Supreme Court, eliminating an intermediate step to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Senate Bill 400, sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), is named the Sgt. Daniel Baker Act. Baker was a Dickson County Sheriff’s officer who was brutally murdered during a traffic stop. The killer then moved Baker’s car to a field where he set it on fire with the officer’s body inside.
Capital punishment in Tennessee is reserved for the most heinous, atrocious or cruel acts of murder.
“The Tennessee Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights Amendment adopted by the people in 1998 gives crime victims the right to a speedy trial and a prompt and final conclusion of the case after conviction or sentence,” said Stevens. “However, no action has been taken to put this constitutional mandate into action. This legislation shortens the time victims and their families are forced to relive the horrors that have taken place by streamlining the process straight to the Supreme Court where the final decision rests anyway.”
Tennessee is in the minority of states which do not have a direct appeals process in capital crime cases as a result of a 1967 law which put midlevel appeals in place. The law implemented a process in which persons sentenced to death have automatic appeals to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals before moving to the State Supreme Court for a mandatory review.
The decision by the intermediary court is not final until the state’s highest court hears the case. Death row inmates can also file appeals in federal court, meaning it can take decades before the appeals process is complete. “This is not a knock at our Criminal Appeals Court,” added Stevens. “It simply puts Tennessee in line with the vast majority of states which find direct appeal to the State Supreme Court as a fair and just process in capital crime cases.”
Fifty-eight people currently sit on death row in Tennessee after being found guilty of heinous acts of murder, with the longest serving person being convicted in 1983.
The legislation now heads to Governor Bill Lee for his signature.