Speakers react to Memphis murders with prison panel

By: - September 9, 2022 1:38 pm
A police car blocks entrance to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis after a substantial crack was found in it May 11. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

The Memphis Police Department is changing strategies in an attempt to hire 300 more officers. ( Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht )

Responding to five killings in Memphis this week, Tennessee’s House and Senate speakers appointed a legislative panel to study the release of prison inmates, work that could lead to construction of more prison space.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is also Senate speaker, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton this week created the Joint Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Adequacy of the Supervision, Investigation and Release of Criminal Defendants, according to a Tennessee Journal report.

The committee will determine whether more legislative action is needed to protect the public from “those who repeatedly violate criminal laws.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally slammed opponents of ethics legislation. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (Photo: John Partipilo)

Serving on the committee will be Sens. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson, Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Bill Powers, R-Clarksville, and Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville; Reps. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, William Lamberth, R-Portland, Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, and Lowell Russell, R-Vonore.

McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said this week the abduction and killing of Memphis resident Eliza Fletcher is clear proof the truth-in-sentencing bill he championed this year was necessary to protect the public from repeat offenders.

On Wednesday, a day after McNally made those comments, four people were gunned down randomly in Memphis. Ezekiel Kelly, 19, who is charged with those killings, was released from prison after serving 11 months of a three-year sentence for aggravated assault.

Cleotha Abston Henderson is charged with first-degree murder, premeditated murder and first-degree kidnapping in the death of Fletcher, who was running near the University of Memphis when she was abducted last Friday. Henderson served 20 years of a 24-year sentence for abducting a Memphis attorney in 2000.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (Photo: John Partipilo)
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sexton, a Crossville Republican, posted a Twitter statement this week saying, “Recent events show us that our criminal justice system is broken from juvenile to adult offenders. This should not be a partisan issue, and we must work together to undo these decades-old, soft-on-crime initiatives. We need a comprehensive rebuild of the entire criminal justice system. That means more support for mental health and substance abuse, stopping incentives to reduce sentences, focusing on juvenile intervention programs but not losing sight of strong sentencing for juveniles who commit violent crimes, and building more prisons. It all works together!”

Gov. Bill Lee allowed the truth-in-sentencing legislation sponsored by McNally and Sexton to take effect this spring without his signature. He opposed its passage and sought a compromise and, when questioned by reporters this week, refused to agree with the concept of requiring inmates to serve 100% of their sentences.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie, who voted against the truth-in-sentencing bill, said Friday he believes the Legislature should be focusing on the root causes of crime, not keeping people in prison for longer periods.

"Bill Lee missed the mark as usual," said Democratic House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, whose wife is a teacher. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Democratic House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“I think it’s one of those smoke-in-mirror things,” Dixie said.

He contends the better idea is to try and bolster people so they won’t enter the penal system. 

The Nashville Democrat also said, “I feel like it wasn’t an issue until a Black person started committing these crimes against white people.”

The man charged with killing Fletcher served 85% of his sentence, Dixie pointed out.

Henderson would still be in prison if he’d been required to serve 100%, but there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t have committed a murder when he got out, Dixie said.

Prisons are failing to rehabilitate people and give them the help they need for mental illness and other problems, Dixied added. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.