Knoxville family shares life-long impacts after verdict, finding justice, and the death penalty

Local News

With convicted murderer Edmund Zagorski on death row for 34 years and scheduled to be executed Nov. 1, a Knoxville family is sharing the life-long impacts that come after a courtroom and the journey to find justice.

Related: Vigil planned in Knoxville protesting execution of death row inmate Edmund Zagorski

The word “justice” is a really hard word to absorb and accept. WATE 6 On Your Side asked the Berrys, is the death penalty a way of getting justice? They say yes and no.

In December 2004, a stranger broke into Johnia Berry’s apartment and stabbed her to death. For two and a half years, investigators searched for Johnia’s murderer. Eventually Taylor Olson was arrested, charged and arraigned in court but he hanged himself in jail before he could be convicted. 

“You never have closure. There’s always that empty space in your heart,” said Johnia’s mother, Joan Berry.

The Berry family never got the opportunity to have a verdict.

Today, they’re part of HOPE For Victims, an organization of families who’ve lost loved ones to violent crimes, many of their members believing the death penalty is a fair punishment.

“If you have taken another life, that is that’s justice. They don’t get a second chance,” said Berry.

Tennessee laws can only do so much and it’s why the Berrys are pushing for better tools within the criminal justice system. 

“You wait a long time to get to go to court. It takes several years sometimes to get there, once you get there you think ‘We’re going to get closure.’ And then you find out that’s not really what happens,” Berry said.

For a third year in a row, they’re taking Truth in Sentencing legislation to lawmakers. The Berrys, along with others in HOPE For Victims, would like to see violent offenders serve 85-percent of their sentence.

“Our neighboring states have Truth in Sentencing already. The state of Virginia has had it since 1995 and their recidivism rate has gone down tremendously. We’ve worked and talked with legislators,” added Berry.

Inmates now can earn credit for time off their sentence or may be eligible for parole after serving only 30-percent of their sentence. Berry believes Truth in Sentencing will save money and lives, “This is not something that’s going to help my case but we want to make it a better and safer place.”

She says over the past three years there have been challenges with this legislation which come down to funding but this go-around, she’s hoping to get more support from lawmakers.

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