Tennessee Voices - Letter from a TN Governors Son

As governor, my father, Frank Clement Sr., truly struggled with the responsibility and legal right to decide who lives and who dies under the death penalty. He did not feel it was a responsibility that should be left entirely to the governor.

During his second term, men did die in the electric chair. I remember seeing the anguish my father suffered as the hour of execution grew closer. He would personally talk with each inmate on death row and ask them the simple question: "Why should I save your life?" Some inmates had lied all the way through the legal process, but when facing my father's question, some did say, "Governor, you should not intervene." Even then, the decision was no easier for my father, because he would also meet with the families of inmates, including wives and children. To my know-ledge, he's the only governor who met face-to-face with families of the men he knew he would not save from the electric chair. He felt it was a step he had to take if he was going to accept the responsibility of a state execution.

Appeal to legislature failed

During his third term, my father had a personal conviction that the state legislature must address the legality of capital punishment. He made his plea to legislators in March 1965. At that time five inmates were on death row, with three scheduled to die that month. He also sent a personal letter to every member of the Senate, asking them to abolish capital punishment, telling them that the death penalty was, in his view, contrary to the biblical commandment not to kill.

He wrote: "The Senate sits today as a jury that has in its hands the lives of five men who are confined to death row in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. ... If the experience of 10 states and 38 nations that do not practice capital punishment is not proof that we can get along without the death penalty, and in fact, have a better administration of justice, it seems impossible to prove anything."

The state Senate voted 25-7 to abolish capital punishment. But opposition in the House of Representatives was much stronger. So just three days before the three executions were set to occur, my father decided to make his strongest appeal in a speech on the floor of the House. He raised tough, pointed questions. He asked: "Can anyone deny that this is a law that does not apply to all alike and is therefore inconsistent? Can anyone deny that human judgment is inadequate? This is a law that we cannot justify. It's a law that does not conform to the older law, the Bible."

Despite my father's direct appeal, the House voted the next day, 48-47, in favor of keeping the death penalty. So my father took the only step his conscience would allow him. He personally went to death row to make his announcement to the condemned inmates. He told them: "I cannot save your soul, but I can save your life. Today, I am commuting your sentence from the death penalty to 99 years." The prisoners began shouting, praying and thanking the governor for saving their lives.

The point is, my father could live with the terrible responsibility of carrying out state executions as long as he felt they were unquestionably justified. But he did not believe such a certainty was possible, other than in God's hands. He said if human judgment was wrong, capital punishment might be defined as "legal murder, given the Commandment that says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' " He said, "The question of capital punishment cannot be divorced from Christian philosophy." He was also troubled by the fact most inmates executed were either poor or black.

After the events of March 1965, despite the legislature' s refusal to abolish the death penalty, my father never oversaw another execution. Now, more than 40 years after he left office, my father would be proud that as part of his legacy, Tennessee has experienced the fewest executions among all the Southern states.

Bob Clement is a former U.S. congressman who represented Tennessee's Fifth Congressional District. He is president of Clement & Associates, a public affairs firm

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