The three Bishops of Tennessee, J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Richard Stika of Knoxville, and David Talley of Memphis, have expressed their support for two bills introduced in the state Legislature that would prohibit the use of the death penalty for those with severe intellectual disabilities.
The bills passed both houses of the Legislature by wide margins on Monday, April 26. In the House of Representatives, the votes was 89-4 in favor of the bill, and in the Senate the vote was 28-1.
The measure now awaits the signature of Gov. Bill Lee before becoming law.
Before the vote, the bishops wrote to Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville expressing their support for the companion bills SB1349 and HB1062, which the two legislators are sponsoring. “We write to let you know of our strong support as the Bishops of the Dioceses of Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis for your efforts to prohibit the application of the death penalty to defendants with severe intellectual disabilities,” their letter said.
“As you may be aware, we have strongly opposed the application of the death penalty in all cases. Carrying out any execution fails to serve the cause of justice and bucks the national trend of states moving away from capital punishment,” they added in the letter.
Nationally, more than 165 people have been released from death row after they were found innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. “Based on a human system as it is, there is always the chance that the state executes an innocent person,” the bishops wrote in their letter. “Even when guilt is certain, execution is not necessary to protect society.”
Pope Francis and St. John Paul II have called for the end to the death penalty as both cruel and unnecessary. In their letter to the two legislators, the Tennessee bishops said that the death penalty “is simply not necessary as the only means to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil laws. 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 bishops thanked the legislators for their pro-life legislation, calling it a “step forward for the good of the people of Tennessee,” and noted that it “recognizes the dignity of the mentally disabled and blocks the application of the death penalty to those individuals, even when they have committed terrible crimes.
“We pray for the victims of crime and their families and friends that they might find peace and healing in God’s boundless love,” the bishops continued. “We pray for the people of Tennessee, that through our elected government, we might turn to the path that respects and defends human life from its beginning at conception to its end at a natural death.”
The legislation would allow courts to examine the intellectual competency of convicted inmates.
Under the bill, an inmate with intellectual disabilities must suffer from “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning; deficits in adaptive behavior; and the intellectual disability must have manifested during the developmental period or by age 18.”
The bill allows defendants sentenced to the death penalty before the law takes effect to ask the courts to consider whether they suffer from an intellectual disability.