Tennessee, one of the most conservative states in the union, has taken a small step away from the death penalty and toward the position espoused by the Catholic Church that the life of every human being, no matter their status or deeds, has value.
Both the State House of Representatives and Senate have passed a bill that bans the death penalty for people with severe intellectual disabilities. It allows defendants convicted of first-degree murder to petition the court to examine the defendant’s intellectual competency if the issue has not yet been decided by the court. The bill also allows people sentenced to death row before the law takes effect, to petition the court to examine their intellectual competency.
As the Tennessee Register goes to press, the bill is awaiting the signature of Gov. Bill Lee, who has expressed his support for the measure and is expected to sign it into law.
One of the sponsors of the bill, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, told reporters the bill follows guidance handed down by the Tennessee Supreme Court in a 2016 case. At that time, the justices recommended the Legislature consider changing state law to allow courts to determine an inmate’s intellectual competency.
The bill passed with wide bipartisan support. In the House, the vote was 89-4 in favor with one legislator present but not voting. In the Senate, the bill passed 28-1. Those kinds of numbers approach what one might see for a resolution saluting motherhood and apple pie.
In these times of hyper-partisanship, the Tennessee General Assembly found common ground in opposing the death penalty for people with severe intellectual disabilities. Even ardent supporters of the death penalty voted for this change in the law.
It appears nearly everyone saw the wisdom of this piece of legislation. Certainly, the three Catholic bishops of Tennessee, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, and Bishop David Talley of Memphis, welcomed the vote. Before the vote, they sent a letter to the sponsors, Sen. Gardenhire and Rep. David Hawk, a Greeneville Republican, supporting the measure, which they described as “Pro-Life legislation.”
The last three popes – St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – have all spoken and written passionately in opposition to the death penalty. In 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Pope Francis reiterated that position in his 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”: “There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”
The bishops’ letter in support of the bill echoed the reasoning of Pope Francis and his predecessors. The bishops noted the many people who have been released from death row after new evidence has proved their innocence. “Based on a human system as it is, there is always the chance that the state executes an innocent person,” they wrote.
“It is simply not necessary as the only means to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil law,” the bishops added. “Rather than serving as a path to justice, the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life and continues a cycle of violence in society.”
The Church’s opposition to the death penalty is a piece of its teaching on the respect for life and the hope for repentance and redemption, even for those who have committed heinous acts against another. Her opposition to the death penalty does not lessen her concern or care for the victims of crime. She offers continual prayers that the victims will find peace beyond their pain.
We recognize that this bill, rather than being the end of the journey toward the abolition of the death penalty, does represent some progress. And for that, we thank Gov. Lee, Sen. Gardenhire and Rep. Hawk, as well as all the other legislators who voted for the measure, for their support and leadership in seeing this bill to passage.
We pray that our state eventually will recognize the truth of the Church teaching on the value of every human life, from conception to natural death, and complete the journey that will take us to a society that rejects state-sponsored killing.