Letter to the Editor: Make an informed decision on judges

To the Editor:
Aug 5, 2014

To the Editor:

On Aug. 7, Tennessee Supreme Court Justices Clark, Wade and Lee are on the ballot to “retain” or to “replace.” The party line asserts these are good judges in the crosshairs of a political agenda. They say, “What we want are judges who are independent, who don’t owe anybody anything,” 

I agree, but those judges need to understand they have a “sacred trust” to uphold justice.   In 1991, my sister-in-law was sexually assaulted, beaten, tied up and thrown in the Cumberland River alive.  Murder devastated my life, and I’ve used my voice for victims ever since.  Working with victims for more than 20 years, I know how important judges are.  One bad opinion from a high court judge can distort justice. 

We need judges who will use wisdom to interpret the law. To be an informed voter, I’ve read the criminal opinions of the three justices.  In my personal opinion, many of the decisions from these three consistently defy common sense, revictimize victims who’ve already been through multiple levels of the system and at times put public safety at risk. 

The premise of law is somewhat like architecture.  Ten architects can look at a building with admiration, and another 10 look at the same building with loathing.  The structural elements necessary for a building is present, but the finished product is in the eye of the beholder.  So is law.

Victims have few rights, and one of those hard-won rights is the opportunity to make a victim impact statement to the jury after conviction, and before sentencing.  The law states victims can share the physical, emotional and financial impact of the crime and share specific information about the victim.  In one of Clark’s opinions she narrowed that right for victims by defining victim impact testimony she deemed “too emotional.” 

I don’t believe the intent of the law was for victims to be emotionless in their statements, but Clark’s position on the high court makes her opinion the final word.  That effects every victim in the future who will give a victim impact statement. 

On the flip side, the defendant has always had free reign to tell the jury about his horrible past, in great emotional detail, with no limitation, in order to sway the jury for a more lenient sentence.  The commercial playing in support of the three justices has a tag line: “Keep Fairness In The Courts.”  Most victims would say, “keep.” How about let’s “have” fairness in the courts, because we rarely see it.

Offenders are on death row for decades in Tennessee. Why? The explanation is found in many of these opinions – delay over legal technicalities that don’t impact innocence of the defendant.  

One of the more troubling cases was bounced around in the system for 30 years by the state Supreme Court. In 1984, Leonard Smith and two others robbed two small grocery stores in rural Sullivan County. Smith and one of the other robbers each killed a victim at each store. Smith killed Novella Webb who owned and operated the store with her husband.  Smith was convicted to death for Webb’s murder. 

He appealed, and the state Supreme Court reversed Smith’s conviction and ordered a new trial.  A new trial was held and he was convicted and sentenced to death again.  The defendant appealed this sentence, and the Court kept the conviction, but ordered a new sentencing hearing.  The third jury again gave death.  Appealed once again, the sentence was reversed and a new hearing was ordered. Legal technicalities – nothing that would change Smith’s guilt.  Thirty years and three juries later, the family was emotionally exhausted, and the DA took the death penalty off the table. This explains Tennessee’s logjam of capital cases.   

These are just a few of the troubling opinions.  Before you vote, check them out. It’s our right to weigh in on these judges, and our duty to make an informed decision whether to “retain” or “replace.” 

See the opinions at facebook.com/retentionvote with links to the full opinions. They range from DUI’s and sexual assaults to death row.

Verna Wyatt 



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