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Ramsey's Supreme Court Claims Called 'Misleading'

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Photo: Video by NewsChannel5.com

Ramsey's Supreme Court Claims Called 'Misleading'

By Phil Williams. CREATED May 6, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A GOP plan, first obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, suggests three Tennessee Supreme Court justices could be targeted in an upcoming campaign with allegations that they let convicted killers go free.

But even some Republicans say that's far from the truth.

The presentation was prepared by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's office. NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed on Monday that it is being used to attract big money for a political campaign against the court.

As to whether it tells the whole story, the lieutenant governor frankly admitted that he does not see that as being his job. 

In particular, former death row inmate Arthur Copeland could become the poster child for a campaign by Republican activists to unseat the three justices.

"What would be wrong with that if that is the case and they overturned that one, why shouldn't they?" Ramsey asked NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Copeland's case was highlighted in the document that Ramsey's office prepared for business groups and others, suggesting that the Court was "soft on crime." A website with close ties to the Republican Party recently suggested that the Copeland case "may send Tennessee voters rushing to the polls."

Ramsey's target: three justices appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen: Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Connie Clark and Justice Sharon Lee. In August, they face a yes-no vote on whether they should be retained, and the lieutenant governor sees a chance to put Tennessee's justice system under Republican control.

"I am concerned about some of the heinous crimes that have been overturned, I think, for frivolous reasons," Ramsey said. "Now that's my opinion. I'm sure the Supreme Court would not say that."

But Republican lawyer Lew Conner said Ramsey's document makes the claim that the justices are soft on crime "because that is a flash point with voters."

In fact, the former appeals court judge called it a "misleading" attack that misrepresents the 21 death penalty cases that have come before the Supreme Court on direct appeal since 2006.

"In 18 of those cases, the Tennessee Supreme Court sustained the death penalty. How can that be soft on crime?" Conner asked.

In Copeland's case, Ramsey's document claims that the court let him "out of death row and back into society."

What Ramsey does not say is that, because Copeland had been convicted on the word of a single eyewitness, the Court said the judge should have let an expert tell the jury that eyewitness testimony isn't as reliable as people think.

(In fact, studies have shown that most exonerated death row inmates were convicted based on faulty eyewitness identification.)

The Court ordered a new trial.

At the same time, they actually overturned a lower court decision and ruled that the death penalty was still an option for Copeland.

"Good for them," Ramsey said. "I hope they'll be able to tell their side of the story, we'll tell our side and may the best man win."

Conner responded, "It's not about telling a story. It's about telling the truth."

In fact, Conner noted that it was a career prosecutor -- not the Supreme Court -- who cut a deal to give Copeland a 14-year sentence after it was discovered that the case had even more problems.

"Once it returned to the trial court, they then found out that -- unknown the the Supreme Court before -- the one eyewitness had previous to identifying this person identified another person," he explained.

Still, Ramsey argued, "Let the people decide. This is about letting the people decide."

Ramsey's document also argues that voters should hear about inmate Leonard Edward Smith and how the court "let this double murderer off death row."

"In that case, one of the issues that came before the Supreme Court was whether or not Smith was intellectually disabled," Conner said.

The former judge noted that Ramsey does not tell that both Democratic and Republican appointees to the Court agreed that the case had to be sent back to the trial court to evaluate Smith's condition.

That's when career prosecutors cut a deal to give Smith a life sentence, instead of death.

"When a person is determined to be intellectually disabled, the Supreme Court of the United States of America says he cannot be executed. There was no choice," Conner said.

Still, the lieutenant governor was unapologetic.

"If we think that somebody deserves the death penalty and they think they don't, then that's what campaigns are all about. That would be like saying if a candidate [voted] for a tax increase, why would you run against that, we needed that tax increase. No, let the people decide."

Conner said that attitude "scares me to death."

He added that he fears the consequences of a big-money attack on Supreme Court justices that doesn't tell the whole story.

"They can't go out on a stump and talk about why they did what they did in any given case. They have to speak through their opinions."

The opinion in the Smith case also noted that the sentencing judge was actually a former prosecutor who had previously prosecuted Smith in another case.

In fact -- get this -- he had even consulted with the prosecutors in the death case while he was still a prosecutor.

As a result, the Supreme Court ruled it was wrong for him to then turn around and put on the robe as a judge in the case. And they said that Smith's lawyers failed to provide adequate representation when they did not dig into the judge's connection to the case.

Ramsey's presentation, however, does not reveal that side of the story.

Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.