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September 28th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Why Texas will continue to execute innocent people

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Gov. Rick Perry took the podium in a somber mood.

I want to apologize to Texas, to the United States, and to the family of Cameron
Todd Willingham, who was executed here in Texas in 2004 for a crime that he did
not commit. In fact, there was no crime at all. Renowned forensic experts,
experts in arson investigations, after reviewing all the evidence, have concluded
that there was no arson involved in the fire at the Willingham home that took the
lives of Cameron Willingham’s three children. Of course, if we could, we would
bring Cameron Willingham back to life, but that is beyond our powers. So, I just
want to say that mistakes happen. That’s just part of life. This wasn’t the first
time and it will not be the last, but you can be sure that I will always do my duty
as your governor and uphold our capital punishment law. I will continue to
assure that we put to death at least fifty convicted criminals each year (on
average). I am proud to continue to lead the great state of Texas. I will continue
to work to make sure that Texas is always number one in executions, even if we
make a mistake sometimes. As they say in Mexico, “c’est la vie !”

The Willingham case, detailed recently in a “New Yorker” article, is not too different from many, if not most, capital murder cases. In 1992, in Corsicana, Texas, Willingham was convicted by a jury based on evidence from local so-called arson experts. At his trial, his attorneys presented no expert arson witnesses of its own; a psychiatric expert called by the prosecution and who had never met nor examined Willingham, described him as a “dangerous psychopath”; witnesses changed their statements to favor the prosecution; and court-appointed lawyers acted in a manner that even at the time appeared incompetent. Now we know that their performance was below any accepted standard for legal representation in a capital murder case.

As recent reports indicate, three unquestionably expert fire investigators have concluded that the fire that caused the deaths of Willingham’s three children was accidental, not arson. One of the three experts found that the opinion of the local fire scene investigator in Corsicana was “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with the science-based fire investigation.”

The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, assists those who have been convicted of criminal misconduct who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. “To date, 242 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 12 years in prison before exoneration and release.”

The Innocence Project had this to say about the Willingham case: “A 16,000-word report in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker deconstructs every facet of the case, finding that none of the evidence against Willingham was valid. Prior to the New Yorker’s investigative report, by David Grann, the forensic science had been debunked as completely erroneous (including in a 2004 investigative report in the Chicago Tribune), but the other evidence was never examined closely.”

At the request of The Innocence Project, the Texas Forensic Science Commission is reviewing the Willingham case and another arson case in which Ernest Willis was convicted of an arson murder and sentenced to death in 1987. He served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated.

According to the Project, a report from “an independent five-member panel of some of the nation’s leading arson investigators” reviewed more than 1,000 pages of evidence, testimony and official documents in the two cases. In the report, the arson experts–with a combined 138 years of experience in the field–say that neither of the fires which Willingham and Willis were convicted of setting was arson. The expert report notes that the evidence and forensic analysis in the Willingham and Willis cases “were the same,” and that “each and every one” of the conclusions reached by the state’s experts in both men’s trials has been proven scientifically invalid. The Innocence Project has requested that the panel order a review of arson convictions across the state.

A widely-respected arson investigator, Craig Beyler, was hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to conduct an independent review of the evidence in the cases. Beyler’s report to the Commission found that the forensic analysis in Willingham’s case was wrong.

For Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. “The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again. As long as our system of justice makes mistakes–including the ultimate mistake–we cannot continue executing people. This case also highlights serious problems with forensic science in this country. The vast majority of forensic scientists are honest, capable, hard-working professionals, but we aren’t giving them the tools they need to do the job.” Scheck suggests the formation of “a National Institute of Forensic Science that can spark research to determine the accuracy of forensic disciplines and set standards for how our system of justice uses science.”

Of course, for some people, executing innocent people is not a problem. In a recent ruling, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas: “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

So, as long as we give accused people a trial that looks fair, based on some minimal standards on procedure and evidence admissibility along with legal representation by poorly-paid appointed attorneys (which is the norm in capital murder cases), it doesn’t matter to our system of justice that someone who is convicted is actually innocent.

And, of course, Gov. Perry didn’t give the speech found at the beginning of this column. He is unable to speak with such truthfulness and candor. It is not politically wise to do so in the execution capital of the United States. Since 1976, Texas has executed 441 people (including Cameron Willingham), more than one-third of all the executions in the United States during that time. We’re number one. We’re number one.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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3 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Why Texas will continue to execute innocent people

  1. My favorite mystery writer James Ellroy is an exception to my observation that all the great American mystery writers are political liberals. He is a hardcore conservative and supporter of the death penalty.
    For several years he was also a special correspondent for GQ magazine (the only time in my life I subscribed to GQ) One of his assignments during that period was to come to Texas to cover the Gary Graham controversy , a black man sentenced to death based on one witness’s sketchy testimony. He reviewed all the facts and legal briefs for his 2000 piece “Grave Doubts”and ended it with a petition that Graham’s life be spared. Graham was executed in 2000,

  2. I meant to say graham was executed in 2002. The lone witness was shown a photo of graham before picking him out of a line-up which to Ellroy planted Graham’s face in her memory and skewed the line-up ID.

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