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USA (Tennessee): Death penalty / legal concern: Robert Glen Coe

, رقم الوثيقة: AMR 51/149/1999

Tennessee is set to carry out its first execution in four decades. Robert Coe is scheduled to be put to death on 19 October 1999. He has a long history of mental illness.

PUBLIC AI Index: AMR 51/149/99
EXTRA 139/99 Death penalty / Legal concern 6 October 1999
USA (Tennessee) Robert Glen Coe, aged 43, white
Tennessee is set to carry out its first execution in four decades. Robert Coe
is scheduled to be put to death on 19 October 1999 in Riverbend Maximum Security
Institution, Nashville, for the abduction, rape and murder of eight-year-old
Cary Ann Medlin in Greenfield in September 1979. The US Supreme Court denied
his final appeal on 4 October 1999.
Robert Coe has a long history of serious mental illness, including
schizophrenia, dating from before the crime. He also suffered a childhood of
which one psychiatrist said “the word catastrophic would be a gross
understatement.” He was subjected to severe beatings and sexual assault by
his father, who also made the boy watch while he raped his sisters. He ran
away from home at the age of 12 and began to abuse drugs and alcohol. In 1975,
aged 19, Robert Coe was charged with assaulting a woman, but was found
incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness. He was described as “a
seriously disturbed young man” whose disposition to violence and sexual
aggression was “a lesson garnered from his father”. His illness included
auditory hallucinations in which he would hear his father screaming at him.
He has reportedly been prescribed anti-psychotic medication on death row.
At his 1981 trial for the murder of Cary Medlin, the jury rejected expert
testimony that his mental illness, including a new diagnosis of paranoid
schizophrenia, coupled with intoxication at the time of the crime, rendered
him legally insane (that is, unable to conform his behaviour to the law). His
resulting conviction and death sentence were overturned in 1996 by a District
Court on the grounds that the judge had given misleading instructions to the
trial jury. In 1998 the 6
th
Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision,
although one of the three judges dissented, saying there was “a substantial
probability that the jury misunderstood its mandate” about finding mitigating
circumstances.
Robert Coe’s appeal lawyers have raised doubts over the reliability of the
conviction. The basis of the case against Coe was his own (subsequently
retracted) confession, which the lawyers believe should have been ruled
unreliable on the grounds that the interrogating officers used leading questions
against a gullible, mentally ill suspect. Although there was other evidence
against Coe, his lawyers argue that the prosecution’s withholding of evidence
from the defence, inadequate defence representation, false police testimony,
shifting witness testimony and misleading jury instructions conspired to favour
a conviction and death sentence. They have also found evidence that another
man, whom witnesses initially identified as the abductor and whom the police
continued to investigate after Coe’s arrest and confession, may have committed
the crime.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
For many people the ever-present risk of wrongful conviction in a capital case
is reason enough to abandon the death penalty. For others, to execute a mentally
ill person is an insult to human decency. The US National Alliance for the
Mentally Ill believes that “the death penalty is never appropriate for a
defendant suffering from schizophrenia or other serious brain disorders”.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases. Every death
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sentence is an affront to human dignity; every execution serves to perpetuate
a culture of violence.
Robert Coe’s case, involving a brutal crime against a child, is one that has
fuelled support for the death penalty in Tennessee and galvanized its victims’
rights movement, frustrated by an appeals process which it sees as prolonged
and preventing death sentences from being carried out. In 1995 Governor
Sundquist reportedly held a press conference near where Cary Medlin was abducted
to push for legislation restricting the number of state appeals in capital
cases. The District Court’s decision in 1996 to overturn Coe’s sentence
contributed to efforts to impeach the judge responsible.
There are 99 people on death row in Tennessee. The last execution was of William
Tines in 1960. The Governor has absolute power to grant clemency. The Board
of Paroles makes non-binding recommendations on commutation. If Robert Coe’s
execution goes ahead, Tennessee would be the 31
st
US state to carry out an
execution since the country resumed judicial killing in 1977.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send telegrams/faxes/express/airmail letters in
your own words, using the following guidelines, in English or own language:
- acknowledging the seriousness of the crime of which Robert Coe was convicted
and expressing sympathy for the family of Cary Ann Medlin;
- expressing concern, however, that Robert Coe was sentenced to death despite
being diagnosed as suffering from serious mental illness, including paranoid
schizophrenia (you may cite the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s
opposition to the death penalty against such defendants, and note that in May
1999 Governor Gilmore of Virginia commuted, on humanitarian grounds after no
court remedy was forthcoming, the death sentence of Calvin Swann, who has
suffered from schizophrenia since he was 19);
- expressing concern at doubts which have been raised over the reliability
of Robert Coe’s conviction;
- urging that Tennessee not take the retrograde step of resuming executions,
and that Robert Coe’s sentence be commuted to a humane alternative.
APPEALS TO:
The Honourable Don Sundquist
Office of the Governor
State Capitol
Nashville, TN 37243-0001, USA
Tel: +1 615 741 2001
Telegrams: Governor Sundquist, Nashville, TN, USA
Fax: +1 615 532 9711
E-mail: dsundquist@mail.state.tn.us
Salutation:Dear Governor
Mr Charles Traughber
Chairperson, Tennessee Board of Paroles
404 James Robertson Parkway
Suite 1300, Nashville, TN 37243, USA
Fax: +1 615 532 8581
Tel: +1 615 741 1673
Salutation:Dear Chairperson
COPIES TO: diplomatic representatives of the USA accredited to your country.
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You may also write brief letters (not more than 200 words) to:
Letters to the Editor, The Tennessean, 1100 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203,
USA. Fax: +1 615 726 8928. E-mail: letters@tennessean.com
PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY.

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