Kill First, Ask Questions Later
It's been nearly four decades since the last execution in Tennessee. During that time, my state has resisted boarding the killing train engineered by folks in places like Florida and Texas, where execution has been refined to a near science, applied with such efficiency that it passes with hardly a notice whenever either kill again.
And yet, within the next few months there is every likelihood that Governor Don Sundquist will preside over the executions of two men, despite evidence that neither is guilty of the crimes for which they've been condemned. That Tennessee may resume capital punishment after such a hiatus is bad enough; that the calls for blood have trumped evidence of reasonable doubt in the cases of Robert Coe and Philip Workman makes the situation even more tragic. Further, it demonstrates the inherent flaws in a justice system that has elevated revenge to the level of a national sacrament; flaws which, unless corrected soon by that same system, will result in what the state calls, in appropriate Orwellian fashion, "Therapeutic Intravenous Intervention" for two men.
That Coe and Workman have received less than favorable treatment in the press should come as no surprise: one is a convicted "child killer," the other, facing execution for killing a police officer. When it comes to victims, Coe and Workman have been unlucky enough to be pegged with killing the two most sympathetic. Coe-convicted of kidnapping, raping and stabbing to death 8-year old Cary Ann Medlin in 1979-finds himself in the unenviable position of having been the personification of the Governor's campaign pledge to administer the death penalty. He is, as the Governor puts it, "the poster child" for capital punishment. Had the state's highest court not ruled as it did today-that both men have 25 days to file rehearing petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court which recently rejected their appeals-Coe would have likely died October 19th, and Workman shortly after.
And yet, despite the media hoopla surrounding the pending executions, little has been said about the evidence regarding guilt or innocence in either case, nor the substantial indications of police misconduct, cover-ups, and incompetent legal representation at trial for both men.
As for Coe, after the disappearance of Cary Ann Medlin and the discovery of her body, all three of the state's witnesses initially identified a different man: Donald Gant. Gant was arrested, and there was considerable physical evidence suggesting his guilt. He had fresh scratches on his neck, blood on his clothes and bedding, a car matching the description given by witnesses, and tire treads consistent with marks left in the mud near where Medlin's body was found. In addition, he had no alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the kidnapping and changed his story repeatedly. Coe, on the other hand, had alibi witnesses (never called by his trial attorney) that could place him in a different town at the time of the crime, and faced no conclusive physical evidence of his involvement.
So how could Robert Coe be convicted and sentenced to die? Easy: first, after being brought in and fed leading questions by investigators, Coe--a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic whom most wouldn't trust to tell them the time of day--accuratelyconfessed to everything the police told him happened. Then, after extracting this confession, but faced with physical evidence implicating Gant, the state crime lab managed to "lose" the materials sent to them for testing.
At trial, instead of arguing that the confession of someone as disturbed as Coe should be taken with a large grain of proverbial salt, his public defender argued simply that his client's illness mitigated his culpability. This kind of defense having been no more popular twenty years ago than today, the jury didn't take long to reject it. They never knew about Gant or the disappearance of evidence. They never heard Coe's witnesses. They knew only that he confessed, and that in the days following the murder he was "acting strange," by dyeing his hair, selling his car, and trying to leave town on a bus. Strange indeed, but not extraordinary for someone who's paranoid, schizophrenic, and hears voices regularly tell him to do all manner of things, of which, leaving town was probably the most benign.
For his part, Workman was sent to death row for the 1981 murder of Memphis Police Lieutenant Ronald Oliver, who was shot responding to Workman's robbery of a Wendy's restaurant. From the beginning, Philip Workman admitted he fired two bullets from his handgun. Dazed from drugs and a blow to the head he received from Oliver's flashlight, Workman never knew for sure if one of his shots had been the fatal one. For some time he appears to have considered that possible, and even likely.
And yet, evidence available but unused by Workman's trial attorney, now casts considerable doubt on his responsibility for first-degree murder. Oliver's wounds were not consistent with the ammunition in Workman's gun: .45 caliber hollow-point bullets, designed to mushroom on impact, remaining in the body and doing heavy damage to internal organs. If they exit at all, they leave an exit wound substantially larger than the entrance wound.
But this wasn't the case for Oliver. The exit wound was far smaller than the entrance wound: inconsistent with Workman's ammo, but perfectly compatible with the bullets used by fellow officers, who could have struck Oliver during what appears to have been a firefight. As if recognizing this possibility, the other officers lied at trial and claimed never to have fired their weapons: testimony which even the appellate courts have recognized as false, given eyewitness testimony, early police reports of the incident, and the fact that Workman was treated for shotgun wounds the night he was arrested.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit Court acknowledged the fatal bullet could not have come from Workman's gun if it exited the body intact, due to the resulting wound. However, they then claimed-with no supporting physical evidence, and autopsy reports contradicting them-that the bullet must have fragmented, sending a smaller portion through the body and leaving the tiny exit wound. When confronted with an affidavit from the head of the International Ballistics Wound Association, pointing out that low-velocity hollow-tip bullets rarely fragment-and when they do, the fragments move too slowly to exit the body-the court simply reissued its previous opinion. As for their earlier acknowledgement that for Workman to be responsible for the fatal shot, the bullet must have fragmented? No problem: they merely crossed out that section from their previous opinion.
It's also likely the state's star witness wasn't even on the scene the night of the event. The day after the shooting, Harold Davis, an African American male, called police to say he'd seen Workman shoot Oliver at point-blank range. Yet, despite claiming his car was in the Wendy's lot at the time, and that he was there when "a bunch" of officers began to arrive, no one remembers seeing Davis. Nor does his car appear on the official police diagram of the crime scene. And another bystander present at the time, whose car would have been parked directly in front of Davis' and who would have had ample opportunity to see the vehicle, claims he never saw it, nor anyone remotely matching Davis' description.
The Prosecution contended, and appeals courts accepted, that Davis was there, and the failure of others to see him was merely the result of a chaotic crime scene, where everyone was "trying to help" the downed officer. Yet this seems unlikely: especially when one considers that the very morning of the shooting, Memphis officers were told to be on the lookout for a black man who had been robbing area Wendy's at closing time. Had Davis been in the lot, what is the likelihood that police would have ignored him or failed to see him, choosing instead to focus on the white man-Workman-exiting the restaurant as they arrived? Even a cursory glance at the common practice of police profiling would argue against such an absurd oversight.
And so it goes: the state of Tennessee, having put executions on hold for nearly forty years, is now preparing to administer the ultimate punishment to two men whose very guilt is in question. Although neither Robert Coe nor Philip Workman have the political appeal to the left of a Mumia Abu-Jamal, nor can they effectively argue, as with Mumia, that they are victims of a racist frame-up since both men are white, the fact remains that, as with Mumia, both cases involve substantial evidence of police misconduct, perjured testimony, and a judicial system that rarely admits mistakes, even as it marches a long line of persons off to their deaths. As with Mumia, we must raise our voices against the executions of these men, and all others, in the name of "law and order." We must expose the lies of law enforcement officials in this and other cases, and we must send the message that the desire of some for "payback" is not a valid basis for the implementation of public policy.
Meanwhile, the train just keeps on moving.