published Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Tennessee’s first black chief justice, Birch, dies

NASHVILLE — Adolpho A. Birch, the first black chief justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court and consistent challenger of death sentences in Tennessee, has died. He was 78.

Birch, chief justice in 1996 and 1997, died Thursday, Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark confirmed Friday. WTVF-TV first reported his death.

The cause of death wasn’t immediately released. Birch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004 and took a temporary leave from the bench that year for chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Birch began his judicial career in 1969 as a General Sessions Court judge in Davidson County. He went on to become a criminal court judge in Nashville and in 1987 a judge on the state Court of Criminal Appeals. He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1993 by then-Gov. Ned McWherter and served there until retiring in August 2006.

“As the only judge who ever served at every level of our legal system, Justice Birch had a keen understanding of the law, the judiciary and the people he served,” Clark said in a statement.

In dissenting opinions, Birch wrote in several death penalty appeals about “grave concerns” over the method the court uses to compare capital cases.

He repeatedly declined to uphold executions, arguing that Tennessee lacks an adequate “proportionality review” of whether death sentences are handed down fairly and consistently.

A 1996 Supreme Court decision written by Birch overturned the death sentence for escaped convict Richard Odom, who had raped and murdered a 78-year-old Memphis woman. The ruling said the crime wasn’t “heinous, atrocious or cruel” enough to warrant the death penalty, though the original conviction was upheld.

Death penalty supporters mounted a campaign attacking the decision in the next court election and defeated Justice Penny White, who had joined in the 3-2 decision. It’s the only time an appellate judge has lost a retention election in Tennessee.

When his seat came up in 1998, Birch was attacked by a similar coalition of police officers and crime victims for his position on the death penalty, but he kept his seat with 54 percent of the vote.

Birch developed a reputation as firm but respectful, said lawyers and judges who worked with him.

“He was humble and polite and, when he needed to be, strict,” Court of Appeals judge Richard Dinkins said.

A statement from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former governor, called him “a consummate gentleman,” and one from Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. said Birch was “rigorous but fair, with a great sense of right and justice.”

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