TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Suzanne Craig Robertson on Aug 26, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Sep 2009

Journal Name: September 2009 - Vol. 45, No. 9

Visitation at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville for Unit 2, Death Row, is Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Physically that doesn't overlap with the work-week but lately it has crossed some lines in my life. At work, as editor of this magazine and co-producer of the TBA's daily electronic newsletter, TBA Today, I am surrounded by the constant flow of legal information, none of it having anything to do with me personally. I look at news releases of disciplined lawyers, not knowing them, and think "that's too bad," or "that sure was dumb." I receive press releases from the attorney general's office and updates from the Administrative Office of the Courts on a range of topics, most of which don't change my mood one way or the other.

But recently a release from the AOC popped in my e-mail inbox with the name of a person I've known for about 16 years. It announced his execution date had been set for Dec. 2. I sat with my hand hovering in mid-air over the mouse, considering it for a minute before I clicked. I had known this order was imminent, but that's not the same thing as seeing it in a press release with a date attached. After putting my head on my desk for a while, I sat up, turned to my computer and numbly wrote the news item about it for TBA Today.

My husband and I met Cecil Johnson through a church-related organization and were counseled to "hate the sin, love the sinner" or something like that. This is how I reconciled knowing him in the first place, when I was squeamish thinking about the victims of the crime of which I have spent years intentionally not learning the details. Since then I have come to question if those victims were his victims. I still feel deep sadness for the families involved, but I don't associate them with Cecil anymore.

Cecil is very much like many others on death row: he had an abusive, impoverished childhood, he is black, was largely uneducated until he got in prison, and he is indigent. He is nothing like the others to me, though, because I know his face and his laugh. And his daughter. You'd be surprised how that makes a difference.

It's an odd feeling to know this man on death row so well, to know a different side than is reported in the news, and also to be acquainted with the people who have studied and decided his fate. I have shaken hands with most of our state Supreme Court justices, chatted about the weather with some, laughed with others. I have interviewed, written about and edited articles by several justices who sit on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. I talk to the governor and attorney general casually at parties once or twice a year. I think most of them would know me on the street and call me by name.

This is where I have a problem, where I feel a bit schizophrenic on the subject.

Cecil would be surprised to know who I know. He might wonder why I don't do something. But these connections don't help in this situation. My knowing these powerful people makes no difference to the process. And that's how it should be -- more points for the Rule of Law.

But reading reports from the ABA Tennessee Study (on the death penalty) and the findings of Tennessee's 2007-2008 Legislative Death Penalty Study Committee, detailed in Bill Redick's article, make me uneasy. It makes me really want the system to be "fixed," as the article suggests it needs, before my friend is punished. On the other hand, I have no question in my heart that the men and women who have dealt with Cecil's case have done so as fairly and appropriately as they are trained to do. They are people of character and morals, surely basing their decisions on the facts as presented and applying them to the law as best they know. Knowing that Cecil has gone through the system encountering these people should make me feel better.

But still I feel sick.

A few years ago, our staff was shooting the Journal cover photo of retiring justices Birch and Anderson at the state Supreme Court building in Nashville. It happened to be on the same day as two scheduled executions. As we waited for the photographer to set up his lights, Justice Anderson explained to me how he needed to be in Nashville that day anyway, as part of the "death penalty protocol," where all the justices gather in the capital city in case they need to have a late-night meeting. He mentioned matter-of-factly that moments earlier a stay had been issued for one of the men. Hmm, I said.

It struck me as unusual that I would be having this sterile conversation on this subject with him on that day. The reporter in me wanted to grill him on how he felt about it, if he was at peace with the system, if he could help me understand. Then I wanted to pull Justice Birch aside and ask him how he was feeling, if he takes it to heart. Instead, the bar association employee in me went over to check with the photographer on the lighting.

During the photo shoot, I made funny comments in an effort to get a chuckle or smile out of them. After all, the story was about their retirements and what they would be able to do next. They needed to look happy. But the weight of the day's business hung in the air and they couldn't see much humor.

After that day had passed and the one execution had been carried out, I talked to Cecil. The death row inmates had been on lockdown in the hours surrounding the execution, all but him, he said. "They gotta eat," he laughed, telling how they had let him keep doing his job, cooking in the kitchen in Unit 2. We laugh a lot and he is easy to like, an unexpected truth. That night I asked him pushy, real questions, like if he cooked the man's last meal. He didn't answer, but said he didn't understand that tradition, that he wouldn't have a last meal -- he considers it foolish if they are just going to kill you next.

Good point, I told him.

Suzanne Craig Robertson SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.