Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: I’ll take the firing squad for $100, please

March 24, 2023 5:00 am
A group of journalists looking at the chair in which Gary Gilmore sat when facing the firing squad in Utah in 1977. (Photo: Getty Images)

A group of journalists looking at the chair in which Gary Gilmore sat when facing the firing squad in Utah in 1977. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tennessee is a few steps from bringing back firing squads, something that hasn’t been used as a form of punishment since the Civil War, mainly when soldiers refused to follow stupid orders such as “Run into the face of that cannon fire!”

This time, it could be for Death Row inmates, those folks who occasionally are found not guilty through DNA testing after they sit in prison for 30 years – mainly Black men. 

Regardless of that possibility, the Legislature is advancing a bill that not only revives Old Sparky, the electric chair, but would line up Department of Correction officers with rifles and have them open fire on the inmate.

Oddly enough, the only person the sponsors could find to testify in favor of the bill this week was one of the sponsors, Republican Rep. Dennis Powers of Jacksboro, who informed the Senate Judiciary Committee it is merely designed to give Death Row inmates another option – sort of like picking peach cobbler over blackberry.

It’s not secret Tennessee is struggling with the protocol for lethal injections and was forced to put executions on hold. Thus, the much simpler method of a deadly bullet.

The only person to testify in favor of a bill to bring the firing squad back as a method of executing people in Tennessee was sponsor Dennis Powers, a Jacksboro Republican, who said the bill is designed to give inmates a choice in how they die — like giving someone a choice of peach or blackberry cobbler

Sen. Frank Niceley, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, explained it succinctly when asked what happens if the inmate flinches and doesn’t die when shot.

Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican, told senators that can’t happen because the inmate is strapped in a chair and has a target on his heart. Niceley pointed drugs and electricity have different effects on people and sometimes don’t kill them.

“Four bullets through the heart affects everybody the same way,” Niceley said. “I think it’s more humane actually.”

Under questioning from the apoplectic Sen. London Lamar, a Tennessee Department of Correction representative said the state is “officially deferred” on the bill, meaning it doesn’t take a position. 

Asked if anyone in the department has expressed interest in shooting somebody, the spokesman pointed out the bill hasn’t become law yet.

But just give them time. Powers told the Senate Judiciary that in Utah, the last place someone was executed by firing squad, 32 people volunteered when only five were needed.

It makes you wonder if correction officers have a hyper-sense of duty or simply want to shoot somebody.

Lamar, a Memphis Democrat who is accustomed to reading news about people getting killed, as most of us are, complained that it cost Utah $1.5 million to construct a firing squad chamber and another $165,000 for 30 days of training leading up to the execution. 

She also noted that South Carolina’s firing squad law was found unconstitutional and likened it to using inmates as “dummies in a gun range,” near legalization of first-degree murder.

Tennessee, where three out of five ain't bad: Capital punishment methods include hanging, lethal injection, electrocution, shooting by firing squad, and gas chamber.
Tennessee, where three out of five ain’t bad: Capital punishment methods include hanging, lethal injection, electrocution, shooting by firing squad, and gas chamber.

“This is not humane by any means,” she said.

But alas, the Senate Judiciary voted 5-2 with two abstaining to send the bill on to Finance, Ways and Means. It comes with a $50,000 price tag and is likely to go “behind the budget,” where the House version went. That means it can’t get a final OK until the money is approved.

The next question is whether Gov. Bill Lee will go along with this if it passes. He hasn’t vetoed a bill in more than four years, and he called for a hold on executions last year when the Department of Correction discovered lethal injection protocol had been violated. 

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said Thursday he doesn’t favor firing squads but wants to hear from the sponsor – that would be Niceley – before making a final decision, though he noted the state’s current methods for executing people are “adequate.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton pointed out several states are passing similar legislation. Only five have legalized the method.

“It’s not forcing anybody to do anything against their will. I don’t know who would take them up on doing that, but … if that’s the option someone wants to take, that’s their right to take, I guess,” Sexton said.

No doubt, we are becoming a more gun-friendly state all the time, with thousands of guns being stolen from cars and used in horrible crimes. 

Still, legislation is moving that will lower the gun-carry age in our permitless carry state to 18.

Meanwhile, the House approved a bill Thursday allowing people to shoot bears declared a nuisance on property adjoining the Smoky Mountains National Park.

First, the property owner must notify the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency before he or she can shoot the bear. Otherwise, he or she can only poke the bear.

Which could lead one to believe, in Tennessee, it seems, no matter what, someone or something is gonna get shot.

We don’t need no stinking Children and Youth

Less than a week after the Tennessee Lookout reported on legislation designed to dissolve the state’s Commission on Children and Youth, the bill was dropped for the session.

But if you believe plans to kill the commission are dead, you’ve got another thing coming.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who was carrying the bill for the governor, said in a statement it is “initiating important discussions that highlight issues the Legislature has long had with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, which largely stem from the commission’s lack of accountability to taxpayers through the legislative oversight process.”

“Under the oversight process, lawmakers – who directly represent taxpayers – have the authority to ensure government organizations are efficient, effective and responsible with tax dollars,” Johnson said.

. . . initiating important discussions that highlight issues the Legislature has long had with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, which largely stem from the commission’s lack of accountability to taxpayers through the legislative oversight process.

– Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, on his bill to dismantle the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth

The commission’s budget is around $6 million, mostly for personnel. 

Johnson forgot to mention that the commission’s job, in part, is to hold the state accountable, mainly by working independently to provide lawmakers with information they need to make solid decisions.

The Franklin Republican, of course, also failed to point out the only reason this came about is that someone in the governor’s office got a burr under their saddle after the commission’s report on children showed Tennessee has the worst foster care system in the nation.

This is not news.

So while the Legislature might be investing $190 million in the Department of Children’s Services to raise case workers’ salaries and provide more places for foster kids to stay, DCS is still screwing up.

The department recently pulled children away from a Georgia couple in Coffee County after they were stopped for for shaky reasons and then arrested for possession of weed. Is anyone surprised they were Black?

DCS hasn’t had the resources for a year and a half to keep foster children from staying in state offices, but it has enough time to harass this family. 

If this weren’t so embarrassing, it would be funny. But they aren’t joking.

Democratic lawmakers, who are highly critical of the plan to dissolve the Commission on Children and Youth, believe it is still on the chopping block. 

The agency is up for a sunset hearing next year, a situation in which lawmakers could refuse to let it continue operating. 

Kylie Graves, a policy specialist for the commission, said the agency was never contacted about the governor’s dissolution plan or whether the commission should take a new direction.Logo for the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

The commission’s chairman received a phone call the Friday before the legislation dropped and nobody knew the changes to be made until Monday, March 13.

“And still don’t know exactly why or what the logic is behind this,” Graves said.

The state could renew the commission’s job of conducting quality reviews of state custody child cases, which was eliminated about 10 years ago through budget cuts. Other groups could take on the task, too.

“But we do think as we’re investing all this money and hoping to see better outcomes in DCS, there’s substantial value in having a third-party outcome review team looking and making sure we’re investing wisely,” Graves said.

What’s good for the goose …

With great contempt, the House adopted a resolution Thursday calling for an Article V Constitutional Convention to put term limits on members of Congress. Forget the fact that a term limits bill on Tennessee legislators died in committee earlier this session. Career politicians are bad only when they’re in D.C.

“We see the dysfunction in Washington,” Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, said as he criticized uncontrolled spending and other assorted problems in Congress. 

In the past, efforts to push for a constitutional convention have been cast aside as the efforts of right-wing nutjobs, mainly because reasonable people worry that once delegates arrive at such a convention they’ll try to change the entire U.S. Constitution.

Congress can call a convention with a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. Or, the legislatures of two-thirds of the states can direct Congress to call a convention for proposing amendments. Then, 38 of 50 states would have to ratify a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, who voted for term limits for congressmen, after voting against term limits for state legislators. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Todd contended that the convention would be contained to the question of term limits, and at an earlier committee meeting said anyone who went outside the scope could be fined and jailed.

Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, remained unconvinced.

“Once you start opening it up, it’s Pandora’s box. … They act like we don’t live in a great country. They keep acting like they hate D.C. … We’re taking a lot of money from D.C., and we’re a receiver state. It’s unfortunate we keep having these conversations,” McKenzie said afterward.

The resolution passed 66-27 with three abstaining.

The camel’s buttocks … 

… are in the tent.

When the Legislature barely passed Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program in 2019, opponents argued it would only be a matter of time before private school vouchers would start spreading to school districts other than Metro Nashville and Shelby County.

It happened quicker than they thought. 

The program, which was approved on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court after it decided Metro Nashville Public Schools isn’t part of Metro Nashville government, is barely under way and Hamilton and Knox counties are being thrown into the mix.

Ironically, the only way to pass the bill four years ago was to remove those from the equation.

Fast-forward, and Hamilton legislators asked for their school district to be added this year, and recently Knox lawmakers – or at least some of them – did the same.

Republican Reps. Michelle Carringer, Jason Zachary, Justin Lafferty and Dave Wright, all of Knox County, are co-sponsoring House Bill 433, the vehicle for adding Hamilton. 

The week in education legislation:

  • Charter schools, which passed in 2019 predicated on only being in Shelby and Davidson Counties, move on Knox and Hamilton Counties.
  • A bill pushed by Gov. Bill Lee to give teachers raises stalls, likely because of another Lee-backed bill to prohibit automatic union dues deduction fro teachers’ paychecks.

Ironically, Zachary was the tie-breaking vote for former House Speaker Glen Casada in 2019 but he did it only after Knox County Schools district was removed from the bill.

Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson called the move “absolutely premature,” because the state doesn’t know how well the program will work in Tennessee. Data is available showing it doesn’t do well in other states.

Yet Tennessee is plunging ahead.

Johnson blames the donors and “dark money” involved in privatizing public school money.

“We always knew that was getting in that first step. They will expand it to every state. They eventually will expand it to other income brackets,” Johnson said.

Under the current plan, low-income students can receive about $8,000 in voucher money to go toward private school tuition and other expenses. Once a new state K-12 funding formula kicks in, that amount is likely to double – all in the name of school choice.

It’s such a good deal for privateers it wouldn’t be surprising to see this go statewide sooner than later.

A little backhanded slap

When Gov. Lee said during his State of the State address he wanted to raise starting teacher pay to $50,000 by the time he leaves office, he received a standing ovation. He forgot to mention that his bill would prohibit automatic union dues deduction from teachers’ paychecks.

It doesn’t seem like a big thing to have to go down to the credit union or bank and ask for a bit of your pay to go to the Tennessee Education Association or Professional Educators of Tennessee. But it is a jab.

Thus, Lee’s bill to raise starting teacher pay was postponed Thursday in the Senate.

Word on the street – or in Capitol halls – is that lawmakers aren’t enthused with increasing pay and taking a punch at teachers simultaneously. It also seems a bit disingenuous. 

The bill could wind up being separated into two parts, one for pay and one for hammering teachers. After all, we love our teachers, but only to a point.

Stay off TikTok

They tell me this type of social media is really addictive, so much so that people send their friends TikTok stuff in the middle of the night. Everyone has that friend who just can’t sleep.

(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

But the Legislature will have none of it, apparently because it’s owned by a Chinese company. 

With an eye to the Far East, the House passed a bill Thursday outlawing TikTok on state networks, including university networks, which is really a shame because college kids love those silly TikTok videos. And we don’t want them having any kind of fun that will benefit the Chinese.

My God, next thing you know they’ll be making all of our cheap tools and other crap. How else is Wal-Mart going to survive?

“The preacher man says it’s the end of time.”



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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.

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