Public Defender Helps Reframe Memphis History

From riot to massacre: Shelby County assistant public defender leads effort to give truth to tribute

Phyllis and memorial.
Shelby Co. Ass’t Public Defender Phyllis Aluko at unveiling of the Memphis Massacre marker.

When Phyllis Aluko read Professor Stephen Ash’s latest book, “A Massacre in Memphis: The race riot that shook the nation one year after the civil war” she wondered why she hadn’t heard about it before.

Then, she wondered about other things — such as why it was not acknowledged with a historical marker, like so many other critical moments in Memphis’ past.

She also wondered why it was called a “race riot”  — a term used historically and still today as code for protests started by African Americans that erupt in violence.

What happened during that horrific three day period in 1866 was the murder of 46 black men, women and children, the beating or rape of many others and the burning of black churches, schools and homes — an unconscionable 36-hour killing spree carried out by white mobs.

Aluko, a supervising attorney and member of the appellate team with the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender, decided to do something — about all of it.  As a board member of the Memphis NAACP, she worked tirelessly with other community organizations and the National Park Service to establish a historical marker with language that reflected the truth of that fateful day.

A dedication ceremony was held at the National Civil Rights Museum and the marker was unveiled at the Army-Navy Park at Second Ave. and Patterson St. near the museum.

You can read more about the marker and the Memphis Massacre here:

Do the Words ‘Race Riot’ Belong on a Historic Marker in Memphis? via NPR

Marker Finally Honors Truth, Victims of Memphis Massacre via The Commercial Appeal

Historian: It Was Both a ‘Riot’ and a ‘Massacre’ via The Commercial Appeal



The Devil In the Details of the Death Penalty

The death penalty is a complicated thing.

Today, members of the Appellate Team at the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public and a group of visiting attorneys from across the country argued one of its finer points before the Tennessee Supreme Court. The main issue: the way in which Tennessee courts consider how the death penalty is imposed in similar cases. This so called “comparative proportionality” review is required by state law and is just another layer in the death penalty process that is intended to ensure fair and equal application of the ultimate penalty.

However, as the lawyers for Corinio Pruitt argued today, the comparative proportionality review has been complicated by inconsistent reporting and is in desperate need of an update. Mr. Pruitt’s case is especially unique in that he was convicted of Felony Murder; the jury did not convict him of intentionally killing the victim, yet he was sentenced to death. Consequently, it is especially difficult to compare his sentencing to others under the current process.

Attorneys from the Shelby County Public Defender's Office, Jones Day and Sidley Austin hold a final Moot Court in preparation for oral argument in State v. Pruitt
Attorneys from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, Jones Day and Sidley Austin hold a final Moot Court in preparation for oral argument in State v. Pruitt

Tennessee is one of 32 states that still have the death penalty. Maryland became the most recent state to abolish capital punishment when its legislature voted to do so last week. Tennessee has 81 people on Death Row. 32 of them are from Memphis. Depending on the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case, Corinio Pruitt and the others may have the opportunity to have their death sentences reviewed to include a comparison more in keeping with state law.

We are proud of our Appellate Team’s tireless challenges to the death penalty process in Tennessee. They are constantly fighting for a more just application of the law with the hope that Tennessee will ultimately end this ugly chapter in its history. Likewise, we are thankful to the attorneys of Sidley Austin, LLP and Jones Day, who have submitted briefs and traveled far to prepare and argue in the Pruitt case.

All of these attorneys are helping make Memphis and Tennessee more just!