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Kill First, Ask Questions Later


Tim Wise

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.

 

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