Shock as Tennessee Republican suggests lynching-style hangings as execution method

State has long history of lynchings

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 02 March 2023 14:08 EST
Tennessee Republican suggests lynching-style hangings as execution method

A Tennessee legislator has apologised after suggesting hanging people from trees as a potential method for state executions, in comments interpreted by some as a call to state-sanctioned lynchings.

On Tuesday, the state’s House Criminal Justice Committee was debating a bill to add the firing squad to Tennessee’s existing methods of execution, lethal injection and electrocution.

“Could I put an amendment on that that would include hanging on a tree, also?” representative Paul Sherrell said, before calling the firing squad bill a “very good idea.”

To critics, the comments were a shocking reference to Tennessee and the South at large’s long history of lynching violence against Black people. There were at least 236 lynchings in Tennessee between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

As The Daily Beast notes, that includes in Mr Sherrell’s hometown of Sparta, where a runaway enslaved person was once dragged from prison and hanged in a local cemetery.

"My exaggerated comments were intended to convey my belief that for the cruelest and most heinous crimes, a just society requires the death penalty in kind," Mr Sherrell said in a statement on Wednesday. "Although a victim’s family cannot be restored when an execution is carried out, a lesser punishment undermines the value we place on protecting life."

"I sincerely apologize to anyone who may have been hurt or offended," he added.

Tennessee, like most states which still use lethal injection for capital punishment, has struggled to source lethal injection drugs and carry out executions without problems.

Last April, Tennessee governor Bill Lee ordered a review of the state’s lethal injection protocol, after state records revealed officials failed to test execution drugs until right before the planned execution of Oscar Franklin Smith, which was called off at the last minute.

An investigation from The Tennessean revealed that even after the scrutiny of the state’s process, officials have still failed to follow protocols.

As The Independent has reported, lynching and the death penalty share a long, racist history, particularly in the US South.

Lynchings sometimes occurred with the tacit or explicit approval of law enforcement, or took place in front of government buildings.

Early backers of the death penalty suggested capital punishment might be a way to satiate racist mobs calling for violence in a more controlled way, while Black people in the US spent years facing the death penalty for certain crimes that would only earn white people stints in jail.

Even once lynchings waned, capital punishment continued to fall disproportionately on Black people, especially those accused of killing white people.

“From its inception, in this country, the death penalty and racism were inseparable,”  Elisabeth Semel, a law professor who heads University of California Berkeley’s Death Penalty Clinic, told The Independent. “That history is defining. It just is defining.”

Bryan Stevenson, the renowned capital defense attorney and Equal Justice Initiative founder, has called the death penalty the “stepchild of lynching”.The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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