Report casts doubt on death row convictions
Written by Sandra Sorensen
October 2000

 


The Rev. Joe Ingle testifying before a U.S. Congressional Black Caucus panel on the death penalty. Sandra Sorensen photo

"I guess I'm not innocent enough."

That is the only thing left for Philip Workman, an inmate on Tennessee's death row, to conclude. Workman was charged, prosecuted and sentenced to death for the killing of Memphis police officer Ronald Oliver in a robbery that occurred Aug. 5, 1981. In the course of Workman's trial, a key eyewitness for the state perjured himself and critical ballistics evidence was withheld that demonstrated that the fatal wound could not have been caused by the bullet from Philip Workman's gun.

Nonetheless, Philip Workman faces execution.

Philip's pastor is the Rev. Joe Ingle, a UCC minister in Nashville, Tenn. Joe Ingle has engaged in ministry to and with people in the criminal justice system for 25 years. As a pastor and advocate for death row prisoners, he has seen firsthand the glaring disparities and trial errors in the administration of the death penalty.

On Sept. 15 Ingle presented a report entitled "More Than Reasonable Doubt: A Profile of Probable Innocence Cases on Tennessee's Death Row" to a Congressional Black Caucus panel on the death penalty. The panel was chaired by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and included representatives from the American Bar Association and Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.

Coming on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice study documenting apparent racial and regional disparities in the administration of the federal death penalty, Ingle's study adds greater urgency to the call for a death penalty moratorium. Presently several bills before Congress address the administration of the death penalty.

In his testimony, Ingle highlighted the case of Philip Workman as an example of a broken system which at the very least calls for an immediate moratorium. Since 1973, 87 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. In 2000, three wrongly-convicted inmates have been released from death rows.

In 1975 Joe Ingle and several colleagues began a volunteer visitation program to Tennessee's death row at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. The visitation program has provided them with a different view of Tennessee's criminal justice system, as they have formed friendships with those condemned to die. "We have become well acquainted with what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun termed ‘the machinery of death,'" says Ingle.

Based on his experience as pastor and advocate for death row inmates, Ingle studied the cases of 16 individuals on Tennessee's death row. He found the following common threads: woeful defense representation directly related to the defendant's inability to pay counsel; plea bargaining; jail house informants rewarded by the state; scientific evidence ignored by police, prosecution and judges; police and prosecutorial misconduct; and racial discrimination. Of the 95 prisoners on Tennessee's death row, 64 had white victims. Only one is a white offender with a black victim. His research led to the report he presented in September.

Joe Ingle sees his work as a faithful response to Jesus' call to minister to "the least of these." He reflects, "I realize it makes me a fool in the eyes of some, but I hope for others they can discern it is the effort of a fool for Christ."

Sandra Sorensen is an Associate for Communications and Media Advocacy in the Washington office of Justice and Witness Ministries.

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