Bill would remove one of many death penalty appeals, speeding up death sentence

Posted at 9:03 PM, Feb 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-15 23:22:57-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's a common question surrounding some of Tennessee's most heinous crimes: why does it take so long to carry out a death sentence?

The answer, in part, involves a series of mandatory court appeals for those sentenced to death for first-degree murder.

But a bill in the state legislature seeks to quicken part of the appeals process by reducing the number of automatic appeals following a conviction.

Currently, after someone is sentenced to death, all cases are eventually reviewed by the five justices on the Tennessee Supreme Court. But before that, it's appealed to a lower court: a three-judge panel sitting on the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals.

A bill introduced by state Rep. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson) would get rid of the Court of Appeals review altogether, sending criminal appeals directly to the state's highest court. It's a move that would seemingly have the support of some crime victims.

Edmund Zagorski was convicted of killing John Dale Dotson in 1983. Zagorski was executed 35 years later, choosing the electric chair in 2018. Dotson's wife Marsha told NewsChannel 5 in October that she wished Zagorski's death sentence would have been carried out sooner.

"It needs to be carried out then so the families can have some closure instead of it lingering on for 30-some odd years," Dotson said.

But attorney Ben Raybin, a member of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says the current court process should remain as it is, with more chances for judges to look over the case.

"I mean, how many people have you heard about where someone's case is being overturned, in some cases because some people on death row are actually innocent," Raybin said. "Many people have said the worst thing we could do in our justice system is execute an innocent person."

Raybin says removing only one criminal appeal wouldn't save that much time, with decades of appeals dealing with other factors -- known as post-conviction appeals -- still to come.

"Really, we're talking talking six months out of what could be a 20-30 year process," Raybin said.

Littleton's bill would only change the appellate process in Tennessee courts. It would not impact the federal court appellate process, which ends with the U.S. Supreme Court.