Tennessee DA seeks death sentence commutation, AG against

Tennessee’s conservative attorney general and Nashville’s liberal district attorney are at odds over whether a death row inmate is intellectually disabled and consequently should not be executed

Travis Loller
Monday 07 November 2022 22:57 GMT

Tennessee's conservative attorney general and Nashville's liberal district attorney are at odds over whether a death row inmate is intellectually disabled and consequently should not be executed.

The case involves Byron Black, a 66-year-old inmate convicted in the 1988 shooting deaths of girlfriend Angela Clay, 29, and her two daughters, Latoya, 9, and Lakeisha, 6. Prosecutors said Black was in a jealous rage when he shot the three at their home. At the time, Black was on work release while serving time for shooting and wounding Clay’s estranged husband.

Black previously sought to prove he was intellectually disabled in 2004, but that claim was rejected at the state and federal court level. Since then, other cases in both state and federal court have led to more finely tuned criteria for determining intellectual disability.

Tennessee enacted a new law last year stating clearly that no defendant with an intellectual disability at the time of their crime can be executed. The law is retroactive, but with a catch. A defendant cannot file a new disability claim “if the issue of whether the defendant has an intellectual disability has been previously adjudicated on the merits.”

Nonetheless, Black filed a motion shortly after the new law took effect, asking the court to declare that he is intellectually disabled. He has argued that the prohibition on filing a new claim should not apply to him because the law itself, including how intellectual disability is defined, has changed. The “issue” is different because the legal standard is different, his attorneys argue.

Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk agreed, and in court filings said he accepted new findings by expert witnesses who previously testified for the state that Black is intellectually disabled. However, a judge dismissed Black's motion in March, ruling that Black does not have a right to relitigate the issue of his intellectual disability.

On Tuesday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals will hear oral arguments in the appeal. This time, the state will be represented not by Funk, but by the state attorney general's office, which takes the opposite view from Funk. In filings prior to the hearing, Senior Assistant Attorney General Katharine Decker, argued that Black should not get “another bite at the apple.”

The conflict mirrors one in 2019 when a Nashville judge approved an agreement between Funk and defense attorneys to resentence death row inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman to life in prison after finding his trial had been tainted by racism during jury selection. The state attorney general's office appealed that ruling, leading Abdur'Rahman's attorney complain that the state should not be able to appeal an agreement by the state. The agreement was struck down for procedural reasons, but Abdur'Rahman was resentenced again in 2021.

Black had been scheduled to be executed in August, but in May, Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee paused all execution s through the remainder of the year after he called off a separate execution in April due to what he called an “oversight” in preparations for the lethal injection. Lee has appointed former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to review circumstances that led to the failure, which the state has said included a lack of required testing for endotoxins in the drugs.

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