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Research integrating the past, present, and future of capital punishment in Tennessee

Social Justice-Death Penalty, Transformative Justice

In examining the relationship between social justice and the death penalty, researchers scrutinize how capital punishment exacerbates existing societal inequalities. This scrutiny involves analyzing the disproportionate imposition of the death penalty on specific demographic groups, revealing systemic biases embedded in the criminal justice system. Concurrently, exploring transformative justice introduces an alternative perspective, emphasizing the need for comprehensive societal change to address the root causes of crime. By juxtaposing these two paradigms, scholars aim to highlight the potential shortcomings of the traditional punitive model and advocate for a justice system rooted in rehabilitation, community healing, and a genuine commitment to addressing systemic injustices. Thus, this research critically examines the ethical dimensions surrounding capital punishment, urging a shift towards a more equitable and compassionate approach to justice.

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Capital Punishment in Tennessee

The exact origins of capital punishment in the shadows of pre-history remain elusive, but it has been employed to punish various behaviors since the earliest civilizations. In the United States, the roots of its criminal law, including the practice of capital punishment, can be traced back to England and other European nations. As states were established, they often inherited legal traditions from their parent states. Tennessee, for instance, formed in 1796, inheriting its legal framework from North Carolina. The historical trajectory of the death penalty in Tennessee reflects the state's intent to use it both as a form of punishment and as a deterrent for specific crimes.

Initially, until 1829, the sole punishment for murder convictions was death. However, an 1829 act categorized murder into first and second degrees, imposing a mandatory death sentence for first-degree murder convictions. Second-degree murder, on the other hand, did not warrant the death penalty; instead, a sentencing range of ten to twenty-one years was established. A significant shift occurred in 1838 when Tennessee legislators granted juries the discretion to choose between death and life sentences for first-degree murder, making the state the first in the nation to do so.


Noe, R. T. (2015). Tennessee's capital punishment history and today's merited reprieve for its death penalty. Lincoln Memorial University Law Review, 2(1), 126-155.

The existence of racial inequalities in capital punishment is not a recent development. Numerous empirical studies across several states have demonstrated that non-white individuals who commit murder against white victims are more prone to receiving a death sentence compared to other defendants. These disparities contribute to the American Bar Association's call for a halt on executions. While the exact location of these disparities within the capital punishment sentencing process is uncertain, it is likely that racial biases permeate the entire capital system.


Blankenship, M. B., & Blevins, K. R. (2001). Inequalities in capital punishment in tennessee based on race: an analytical study of aggravating and mitigating factors in death penalty cases. University of Memphis Law Review, 31(4), 823-860.

Over the last four decades, Tennessee has handed down sustained death sentences to 86 out of over 2,500 defendants convicted of first-degree murder. However, only six of these individuals have been executed. The criteria for selecting these few raises questions about whether Tennessee consistently and reliably reserves the death penalty for the "worst of the bad." To address these concerns, we conducted a survey covering all of Tennessee's first-degree murder cases since 1977, when the current capital punishment system was established in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's Furman v. Georgia decision. This decision asserted that a capital punishment system operating arbitrarily violates the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Despite Tennessee's implementation of a "guided discretion" scheme aimed at reducing arbitrariness, our survey and analysis reveal that the state's capital punishment system falls short of meeting Furman's requirements. Instead, it has perpetuated the very issues of arbitrariness that Furman aimed to eliminate.


MacLean, B. A., & Miller, H. E. Jr. (2018). Tennessee's death penalty lottery. Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy, 13(1), 85-182.

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Transformative Justice in Capital Punishment

Embarking on a journey through the realms of Transformative Justice within the context of capital punishment opens the door to a paradigm shift in our understanding of the criminal justice system. Unlike traditional punitive measures, Transformative Justice fosters rehabilitation, healing, and societal change. In this exploration, we navigate diverse academic disciplines, legal frameworks, and social sciences to unravel the layers of this transformative concept. By examining case studies, legislative shifts, and scholarly perspectives, we challenge established notions of retribution and delve into the potential benefits and implications of adopting an approach that prioritizes restoration and addresses the root causes of criminal behavior. This introductory synopsis sets the stage for a nuanced exploration of Transformative Justice in capital punishment, inviting a critical examination of the evolving discourse surrounding this complex and impactful topic.