The Cameron Todd Willingham execution

Many of you have probably already read the excellent New Yorker piece on the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Briefly, Willingham was convicted largely on the basis of deeply flawed pseudo-science about the nature of fires.

The Coriscana Daily Sun has dueling opinion pieces from the prosecutor who convicted him and someone from the Innocence Project.

Reading over the New Yorker description of the trial and the prosecutor’s piece, it’s hard to believe this all took place a decade ago and not a century ago.

TNC has several good posts about this (here; here; here).

Update. Commenter EconWatcher relates a first-hand story about the Texas justice system:

Years ago I worked pro bono on a Texas death penalty case. The judicial system there is medieval. You literally cannot beleive it. In the case I worked on, the prosecutor quoted from the Bible to argue to the jury that Holy Scripture required them to render the death penalty. He specifically quoted St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (“He is the wrath of God, to execute God’s vengenance on the wrongdoer.”)

Then I did some research and found out that this was standard practice for Texas prosecutors in death cases (at least in the 1980s). They were actually trained to use the same quote, apparently because it was market-tested as effective with Baptist juries.

(By the way, after years of struggle, my client was executed in July 1997. There is no feeling of defeat that can compare to it.)






69 replies
  1. 1
    Tonal Crow says:

    The criminal “justice” system is a pathetic joke, and what’s more pathetic is that we not only accept it, but actively work to make it worse. From draconian penalties, to scandalous treatment of defendants who can’t afford lawyers, to forensic “science” that’s very often not even pseudoscience, to whittling the 4th Amendment to a stub, to prison rape, it’s a scandal unworthy of America. For much more on this topic (forgive the blog promotion), check out http://blog.simplejustice.us/ .

  2. 2
    beltane says:

    The State of Texas murdered an innocent man and has shown no sign of remorse or contrition. Maybe some of the guilty parties should spend some time in a jail cell pondering the vortex of evil that is their soul.

  3. 3
    PartyLikeIts1990 says:

    It’s funny how fast this guy gets ramrodded to execution, yet Glenn Beck still walks free. Despite the rumors — which Beck has not even bothered to deny! — that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990.

  4. 4
    GregB says:

    This is the most egregious example of a big government run amok.

    It won’t get an ounce of coverage from the outrage mills.

    The are too busy hyperventillating over Michelle Obama’s shorts.

    -G

  5. 5
    BDeevDad says:

    Popular Mechanics had a good article on the The Shaky Science Behind Forensics

  6. 6
    Scottofny says:

    No prosecutor is ever going to admit he/she was wrong.
    There like ball players; ERA/ batting average is everything. I’m often amazed at the denial in the face of new evidence such as DNA with prosecutors resisting reopening cases. A recent SCOTUS opinion seems to support that. If the trial was fair based on the evidence at hand, subsequent evidence does not invalidate the original decision nor warrant a review.
    Until that mental set is changed, prosecutors will continue to be one of the biggest obstacles to justice. /end rant

  7. 7
    Scott Cobb says:

    If you are shocked that Texas executed a person who was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, then join us in Austin at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

    http://marchforabolition.org

    At the 7th Annual March in 2006, the family of Todd Willingham attended and delivered a letter to Governor Perry that said in part:

    “We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.”

    “Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.”

  8. 8
    Scottofny says:

    Edit
    They’re NOT their
    I do so know better

  9. 9
    r€nato says:

    I can’t wait to hear what Maria Bartiromo thinks about this.

  10. 10
    EconWatcher says:

    Years ago I worked pro bono on a Texas death penalty case. The judicial system there is medieval. You literally cannot beleive it. In the case I worked on, the prosecutor quoted from the Bible to argue to the jury that Holy Scripture required them to render the death penalty. He specifically quoted St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (“He is the wrath of God, to execute God’s vengenance on the wrongdoer.”)

    Then I did some research and found out that this was standard practice for Texas prosecutors in death cases (at least in the 1980s). They were actually trained to use the same quote, apparently because it was market-tested as effective with Baptist juries.

    (By the way, after years of struggle, my client was executed in July 1997. There is no feeling of defeat that can compare to it.)

  11. 11
    General Winfield Stuck says:

    Ex-Texas death row inmate freed; AG drops charges

    State prosecutor Adrienne McFarland said in a dismissal motion that there was not enough time to complete an independent investigation before the Thursday deadline. The state can refile charges against Toney in the killings if the investigation warrants it.

    “The extensive post-conviction investigations undertaken by Mr. Toney’s defense team have produced overwhelming evidence that he was both wrongfully convicted and wrongly sentenced to death in this case,” Kennedy said.

    Though the DA indicates this was done to meet some deadline, they plan to retry it. But anyhow, how can they make such a determination in this case, but not at least provide a new trial in the Willingham one. with such powerful new evidence,. All I can say is, I’m glad I don’t live in Texas, though living next to it isn’t all that pleasing.

    Viva La New Mexico. Massachusetts on the Rio Grande/

    For the 37 decent dems who live there, you should make like a tree and leave.

  12. 12
  13. 13
    R-Jud says:

    @BDeevDad:

    The Shaky Science Behind Forensics

    Some of my relatives in New Jersey are involved with detective work of this nature, and every time they start swapping stories in my presence, I have nightmares about being wrongfully convicted for a week.

    EconWatcher, what a horrible story. Are you still a lawyer?

  14. 14
    jonas says:

    Remember, according to Antonin Scalia, there is nothing technically unconstitutional about executing someone just because they’re not guilty.

  15. 15
    Makewi says:

    I find the Glenn Beck thing interesting. I get going after Scientology, and the YouTube porn thing was funny, but this moves the organization into political realms that I find troubling.

  16. 16
    freelancer says:

    OT – WND posted a codeword filled armchair psychological profile of Obama comparing him to, wait for it…OJ Simpson.

    The author, Erik Rush (Erik w/ a K? EVIL.) is concerned about Obama’s “Malignant Narcissism”. This from a guy who wrote a book called “Annexing Mexico”, where his thesis is to stop illegal immigration, we need to invade.

    Wow.

  17. 17
    Gwangung says:

    Why does this surprise people? We’re willing to torture, so executing people for crimes they didn’t commit is nothing, better we kill one innocent person than we let some bastard go before he gets what’s coming to him.

  18. 18
    shabadoo says:

    So basically the prosecutor admits that the forensic case was a pile of steaming shit, but defends himself with a bunch of suggestive “evidence” and character assassination of a dead man.

    Somehow Willingham was guilty in part because he was rude when accused of murdering his children

    Awesome.

  19. 19
    Cathy W says:

    I don’t know how the members of the clemency board sleep at night.

  20. 20
    EconWatcher says:

    R-Jud, I’m still a lawyer. But after working on two death cases for the better part of a decade, I’ve quit doing that kind of pro bono. I felt kind of cowardly abandoning it, but those cases take an emotional toll.

    The worst part is standing in front of federal judges on habeas corpus and watching them come up with every kind of technicality to refuse to review what happened in the state trial, when the most blatant injustice is staring them in the face. It leaves you with a cold, sickened feeling that never really goes away.

  21. 21
    Makewi says:

    @EconWatcher:

    According to the records, Texas only executed one individual in July 1997:

    Robert Wallace West Jr.
    Executed: July 29, 1997
    Convicted in the slaying of DeAnn Klaus, 22, in Houston. Klaus was strangled with a belt and pillowcase and then was beaten and stabbed with a wooden club.

    Apparently he apologized to the victims family during his last words. This the guy?

  22. 22
    kay says:

    @shabadoo:

    That’s like a crime all by itself. “Impolite to law enforcement”.

    I think we’re moving into dangerous territory when it’s punishable by death, though.

  23. 23
    EconWatcher says:

    Makewi, actually it was Robert Madden, executed 5/28/1997. I remembered it as July for some reason.

  24. 24
    debbie says:

    @beltane:

    “The State of Texas murdered an innocent man and has shown no sign of remorse or contrition.”

    Actually, that’s not quite true. According to the New Yorker article, a commission was set up to review the Willingham case and a report is due out early next year. In the second-to-last paragraph, Grann says that the commission has stated that Willingham was “legally and factually” innocent.

  25. 25
    mai naem says:

    Now if he was an old fart white Republican United States Senator from Alaska, Eric Holder would be on it in a New Yawk minute. This guy is just some poor white redneck from podunk who never amounted to anything and he will never be hiring Holder or his family for anything. He can never be used to prove bipartisanship. He will never donate a dime to Obama or any Democratic organization so his case will never matter.

  26. 26
    JR says:

    The sad part is that prosecutor went on to be elected a district judge, as a Democrat, several times. And he may have to lie to himself to assuage his (as-yet unseen) conscience, but if that’s his idea of the standard necessary to send someone to the death chamber, he ought to be disbarred (then tarred & feathered).

  27. 27
    JR says:

    * – well, the sad part besides the state-sanctioned murder of an innocent man.

  28. 28
    Demo Woman says:

    Reading the opinion piece sickened me, the New Yorker did not talk about charges of spousal abuse being filed. His wife did say that he had hit her before though. Jackson wrote a paragraph stating that Willingham tried to kill his children in utero but did not provide proof of that. Jackson is trying to save his reputation.

  29. 29
    Makewi says:

    @EconWatcher:

    Ah, the last meal request. You’re right, that is a sad story.

  30. 30
    John Payne says:

    The guy had 3 strikes against him: (

    1)A Republican governor
    (2) The most lunatic, death-penalty-loving, amoral-christian-Republican state Texas
    (3) He was poor

    Let’s see how wingnuts can blame Obama for yet another Republican crime.

  31. 31
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Scottofny:

    No prosecutor is ever going to admit he/she was wrong.

    That really is what it comes down to — protecting the prosecutor’s ego. It’s a seriously weak ego that requires killing innocent people to prop it up.

  32. 32
    John Payne says:

    “the New Yorker did not talk about charges of spousal abuse being filed”

    Apparently, a woman who lied to get her husband executed wasn’t good enough for people who believe if a man has been alledged to have abused his wife (even when the accuser has already been exposed as a liar) there’s no problem prosecuting him & murdering him for a crime he didn’t commit. Not only isn’t the wife criminally responsible, in bizarro world SHE’S the victim.

  33. 33
    Jack Canuck says:

    @debbie:
    I’m not sure that shows “remorse or contrition” so much as just a recognition of what appears to be the facts. Something a bit more explicit might be called for here. Like, maybe, “We’re really sorry that we executed an innocent man.” Time to check the temperature in Hell, perhaps…

  34. 34
    kay says:

    “Since his 1997 conviction for murder and subsequent sentence to life in prison, Willie Knighten, Jr., has maintained he wasn’t guilty…..

    “Over the past years, I have become increasingly persuaded that my findings were erroneous and that – in fact – it is more likely than not that Willie Knighten was innocent of the underlying charges,” Judge Skow wrote in a Feb. 5, 2009, letter to a parole officer at the Ohio Parole Board. “This case has weighed heavily on my mind ever since.”

    So, it’s possible to do the right thing.

  35. 35
    jwb says:

    @Mnemosyne: It’s not just ego. In Texas, it’s also about being re-elected.

  36. 36
    AhabTRuler says:

    @jwb: and, of course, good ole’ fashioned Texas Justice(TM)!

  37. 37
    Xanthippas says:

    The “Honorable” John Jackson’s rebuttal piece is absurd. Several of his assertions are rebutted or discredited by the New Yorker column (I suppose he hadn’t had time to read it yet), and the rest is circumstantial or embellished. Judge Jacksons knows as well as anyone else that it was faulty “scientific” evidence and a jailed liar that sent Willingham to his death, not any of the assertions he lays out in his column. If he doesn’t have the moral strength to face that fact, then he shouldn’t compound the original injustice with his grotesque defense.

  38. 38
    kay says:

    @Xanthippas:

    I think it makes it too difficult to recant or re-examine when the man was sentenced to death, or, worse, executed, as here. The stakes are too high. What might be a humbling admission of error were the man not sentenced to death, and imaginable, becomes a bridge too far, and unimaginable.

    The death penalty is just obscene. It dirties everything it touches. No one involved with it ever comes away unsullied.

  39. 39
    wasabi gasp says:

    Jesus died for prosecutors sins too, win/win.

  40. 40
    Steve says:

    I’m not shocked that it’s standard practice in Texas to use the Bible to argue for the death penalty, but I’m quite surprised that the federal courts are okay with that. However, as EconWatcher says, there are just so many new rules that were adopted to let the federal courts duck thorny issues like that one.

  41. 41
    jibeaux says:

    @debbie:

    No, it doesn’t, it says there is a possibility that when the commission releases its report, it could become the first state to acknowledge having executed a legally and factually innocent person, which would presumably have monumental ramifications for the death penalty nationwide.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath, really, it IS Texas.

    Just to tell a good story about prosecutors, here in NC we’ve had a number of these high-profile exonerations over the last few years with the rise in DNA testing, I’m sure other states have as well. The DA in one county was so bothered by the prospect that he may have unwittingly sent innocent people to prison that he sent every inmate convicted out of his county currently serving time — over 2,000 people — a letter saying that if they thought DNA testing would exonerate them, that he would make that happen. And now another man, 14 years in prison for raping children that he didn’t do, is out.
    I thought that was commendable conduct on the part of the DA and really gives credence to the idea of serving justice rather than just serving the prosecution. http://www.newsobserver.com/ne.....73098.html

  42. 42
    Keith G says:

    People, the Texas injustice system murders more folks than those who are executed.

    Death in police custody has been all too common and until reletively recently, not a priority.

    Go to jail sick….you might not make it out

    http://blogs.houstonpress.com/....._death.php

    More on the federal lawsuit

    http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/st.....ws/localtr

    Returning to executions, there is always my favorite:

    On September 25, Keller refused to keep her clerk’s office open an extra 20 minutes to receive a last-gasp pleading from the attorneys for condemned inmate Michael Richard. Richard’s lawyers were having computer problems that prevented them from turning in their motion on time. The 49-year-old murderer was executed just hours after Keller locked the door.

    http://www.dallasobserver.com/.....dge-dread/

    Keller now is in the process of being sanctioned.

    If my home state is pro-life, I am Tinkerbell, and though
    I am a fairy, I ain’t got wings.

  43. 43
    Xenos says:

    The point of the death sentence is not deterrence, since it does not deter. The point is not justice, because in practice it is unavoidably unjust. The point is that killing people who are officially designated as ‘bad’ makes some people feel better, and makes them feel they can cleanse the world of some evil, can set the world aright, can remake and redeem creation to some degree.

    As such, it is indistinguishable from human sacrifice.

  44. 44
    scarshapedstar says:

    What an absolute sack of shit. The prosecutor doesn’t understand why a father might say that his dead daughter wasn’t supposed to die before him? He’s the fucking sociopath.

    I hope he never has a decent night’s sleep as long as he lives.

  45. 45
    scarshapedstar says:

    Oh, and another thing – from the New Yorker article, I understand he got a witness to testify that Willingham was too distraught at watching his children burned alive; that only the mother would feel that kind of horror.

    Fuck him.

  46. 46
    tigrismus says:

    @jibeaux: Thanks for that one ray of light. More Tom Keiths, fewer John Jacksons, please. His sort of strenuous, dishonest toil to send an innocent man to his death should have criminal consequences.

    And EconWatcher, I can’t even imagine, I can only sympathize in some small way and think well of you, and all who have done and do that work as long as they are able to.

  47. 47
    comrade scott's agenda of rage says:

    The state can secede anytime. We’d be a far richer nation for it.

  48. 48
    Anne Laurie says:

    @jonas:

    Remember, according to Antonin Scalia, there is nothing technically unconstitutional about executing someone just because they’re not guilty.

    For Scalia, it’s not about justice, it’s about human sacrifice. And yet he’s lauded by the fReichtards as a “good Christian”. If some DHS-labelled terrorist with a Mexican name ever got brought up in front of Little Nino for encouraging his raggedy cult members to violently resist authority, you can be sure that Jesus fella would be punished to the full extent of the law, by God!

  49. 49
    SGEW says:

    Human justice is unavoidably imperfect. Death is irreversible and unmitigatable. This is known.

    The death penalty itself guarantees unacceptable outcomes. The rest is just probability.

    Mind you, we should make significant efforts in fixing those terrible, terrible probabilities (reminder: the U.S. criminal justice system is broken), but when it comes to capital punishment (we’re only #5 on that particularly heinous global list! Hooray!) we have a simple fix.

    Abolish it. Done. All the arguments against the abolition of the death penalty are either economic, administrative, or purely theoretical (I’ll get retributive on your deterrence model with non-rational actors, but only hypothetically and/or analogously). The economic and administrative problems pale in comparison to the overall reform the criminal justice system needs in toto: drops in an ocean of problems (there’s even a colorable argument that abolishing the death penalty would save money). And the theoretical arguments are nothing . . . nothing! . . . compared to the unavoidable reality of killing innocent human beings and calling it “Justice.”

  50. 50
    SGEW says:

    Also, via CitizenE (via Ta-Nehisi’s comments, natch), an excerpt of George Orwell’s “A Hanging“:

    “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.”

  51. 51
    trollhattan says:

    Texas State Supreme Court would seem to be the finest court money can buy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Supreme_Court

    Good luck finding any sort of justice there. Unless you’re a bidnezman.

  52. 52
    Dr.BDH says:

    This is the criminal injustice system that gave us George W. Bush. He and Fredo Gonzoles never reviewed clemency appeals and then he led into war. Name an abortionist who ever did that.

  53. 53
    oscarbob says:

    I have been a judge adjudicating support/paternity for a little over 5 years. I practiced law for 22 years before that. I represented very few criminals who were innocent, but quite a few who were convicted of a higher degree of crime than they actually committed. Prosecutors have a tendency to bring charges in excess of what can be proven, to both intimidate the defendant into pleading guilty before trial to a lesser count (usually what they actually did) but also to give the jury the mental luxury of convicting of a lesser count. Some defendants chose the jury trial, and occasionally the jury would convict on the charged count. Appeals fell on deaf ears as most judges, both trial and appellate (both elected in NY), did not want to appear “soft on crime’. I stopped practicing criminal law because I could not deal with the stress of the trial process. I constantly second guessed myself, both on strategy and how vociferous I should be in recommending a plea bargain. I cannot even imagine representing a defendant wrongfully convicted in a capital case. Any judge , or state, that feels that execution is warranted in the face of exculpatory evidence is beyond my capacity to understand.

  54. 54
    josefina says:

    @Makewi: Excellent work, looking up sources and all that bullshit.

    And not a peep from you since.

    Why is that?

  55. 55
    Bub says:

    I know there is not much justice in that part of the country. Everyone that is over 50 and from the north knew not to go to TX or LA you would be shook down by the Cops. There is no law there. The thing about people from that area is that they really think they are God’s chosen bunch and are never wrong. Just look at our last president. Most of the people are very closed minded. They believe the worst.. Just like the judge in #53 says in essence: “the guy was a dirtbag if he didn’t do this he done somthing just as bad I’m sure” So that is the reasoning.

  56. 56
    Mike P says:

    I know some people will not want to dig into this story for a variety of reasons: it’s very long, the central character is not, at the outset, sympathetic, it’s a hot button issue and people are pretty set in their views, etc., but, you should read it anyway. For one, and I know it might sound strange to say this about such a heavy subject, this is a beautiful piece of writing and reporting. The author started working on it last December and it’s just coming out now. There are multiple characters who get mentioned and teased out, motivations presented, technical and scientific concepts worded for the layman…there’s just a lot going on and, if you’re like me, once you start it, you won’t stop until you’re done with it. It’s at that level where it almost reads like some best-selling thriller; you will be sucked in, and at the end, you will be exhausted. It’s going to be discussed in a couple of the classes at my graduate j-school, and it should be. If it doesn’t win a few magazine awards, it would be a shame, because this, along with Atul Gwande’s piece on health care in Texas from earlier this year, are two of the best pieces of narrative non-fiction you’ll encounter.

    God bless the New Yorker. And as to the piece itself…you’ll probably end up feeling angry/distressed/depressed by the end. It will leave you thinking.

  57. 57
    Mike P says:

    @Cathy W: Holy shit do they come off as major league assholes. They just couldn’t be bothered to look at the new evidence. They knew they were right.

  58. 58
    Mike P says:

    And oh yeah…Grann, the author of the piece, took questions online the other day. Someone asked him about Jackson’s rebuttal, and this was his response:

    DAVID GRANN: I saw Jackson’s op-ed, which came out the day before my article appeared in print. I had investigated the points he cites, and found, for a host of reasons, that they were not credible. I plan to respond to his points later, in detail, on the New Yorker News Desk blog.

    Judge Jackson is going to getting effing wrecked.

    And I can’t recall if I’ve seen this story talked about here, but the New Yorker had another gold piece two weeks back. If ever you wanted to discover just how screwed our education system is, read Steve Brill on NYC’s “rubber rooms”.

  59. 59
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Keith G:

    I remember her from Frontline. I can’t believe she kept her seat after she said on national television, “Just because you’re innocent doesn’t mean you get a new trial.”

    But, then, this is Texas we’re talking about, where dick-swinging is the primary mode of political discourse.

  60. 60
    kay says:

    Well, I read it. I was most bothered by the statements from the defense. I feel as if something important is being lost, or never learned.
    The defense don’t prove innocence. That’s not the job. They force the state to prove guilt. They didn’t defend. Instead, they looked at what the state had and said “we can’t prove innocence”. That’s not a defensive role.
    I guess it would be nice if they had a nice, clean, easy exculpatory defense, but that’s not reality. They threw up their hands five minutes into this. I feel as if they did this because there was a community (mob) “decision” before the trial started, and they were ashamed to be on the “wrong” side of that, standing with the “baby-killer”. They disliked and had disgust for this guy.
    If they want to be on the state side, wearing the holier-than-thou white hat, they should head over there. I think they were in the wrong chair.

  61. 61
    Tom G says:

    Has anyone seen The Thin Blue Line? It’s a documentary about Randall Adams, a man who spent over 12 years in prison after being convicted of murdering a police officer in 1976. He was almost put to death before evidence was uncovered to prove his innocence, and his conviction was overturned on the grounds of malfeasance by the prosecutor.

    That was Texas.

  62. 62

    […] at Balloon Juice, DougJ discusses the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, probably falsely executed based on some egregiously spurious pseudoscience about […]

  63. 63
    jon says:

    Forensic evidence is a curious thing. It’s part science, part wishful thinking, part voodoo, but all admissible in a court of law.

    As an example, there’s shaken-baby syndrome. Turning a child into a blind idiot by shaking it until the brain is damaged? Funny how the science behind that can’t explain how a baby wouldn’t have its neck broken or massive damage to blood vessels in the neck from the forces needed to damage the brain to whatever extent it takes to cause the injuries, but it’s assumed to be a real phenomenon because everyone knows not to shake a baby. (And you most definitely shouldn’t, but not because you’ll cause direct brain damage but because you very well could injure the neck and cause other damage. Babies are fragile, but their necks must be super strong if you are to believe everything behind the theory of shaken-baby syndrome.) Still, babies that show signs of brain damage but no signs of shaking are explained to be evidence of abuse rather than evidence of many other things that can harm a brain.

    Science changes, usually toward the truth. Add politics and money and public safety and all the rest, and science can easily be corrupted. Assertions are made that affect peoples’ lives, truths revealed can back up falsehoods as much as truths, and the overall effect of this is that we really shouldn’t let others do our thinking for us. Even things like devices to measure blood-alcohol content are based on assumptions that aren’t necessarily true for all individuals. But we act as if everyone is the same specimen in the same lab conditions, and we do so at our own risk.

    Fire science, baby brains, bullet fragments, eyewitnesses, DNA, emotions, and all the rest will never fully allow us to know everything. Liars will lie, crusaders will go on crusades, sure-minded people will not waver, and every prosecutor can just go back to the old standby of Just Doing their Job. Really, there’s no one thing that’s going to make our judicial system fair and right and just, but we should have an appeals system where evidence of innocence isn’t subject to time limits and procedural rules. It should be a completely separate judiciary with completely separate attorneys representing the state and completely separate attorneys representing the individuals asserting their innocence. Only a clean break from other courts can give such a system the independence it needs, but that still won’t be enough to overcome every fault. But it would be a good start.

  64. 64
    Jack says:

    @Xenos:

    Yep.

    The death penalty is blood magic, plain and simple. It’s bronze age magical expiation of blood debt.

  65. 65
    ChrisS says:

    So this guy convicts and murders an innocent man on circumstantial evidence and his only response is to scream louder about the circumstantial evidence.

    Great. Glibertarians should be all over this one. But they’re too concerned with the president telling students to study hard and work for their dreams. Fuck these people.

    This is why “lists” and databases and records searches and use-patterning scare the living bejeezus out of me. Those and Kafka’s The Trial. Why the Patriot Act should be stripped from legislation and why the criminal justice system needs a thorough enema.

  66. 66
    Tongue of Groucho Marx says:

    It’s always funny to watch people defend a system that depends on being absolutely flawless to be anything other than an amoral piece of shit.

    I’ve heard several irrational arguments for the death penalty. One of my favorites was from my roommate, where he basically admitted that there is no hard evidence that the death penalty stops crime, but that the fear of execution will somehow stop people from committing crimes. Yep, no hard evidence, but we’re still supposed to support it.

    I can’t really say that I’m morally against the death penalty, as I would care little if people like Tony Alamo, Letalvis Cobbins, or Timothy McVeigh are put out of their miserable existences, but there is no rational justification for it, and plenty against it.

  67. 67
    jon says:

    Having a death penalty or three strikes laws makes it less likely that some criminals will leave witnesses alive. People with nothing to lose can make any of us losers.

  68. 68
    Megan says:

    @debbie: The article, in fact, states: “There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the ‘execution of a legally and factually innocent person.’” It has not yet done so.

    @Demo Woman: The article states several times that Willingham abused his wife.

    @John Payne: Willingham’s wife did not “lie to get her husband executed.” In fact, she steadfastly maintained that she did not think he was capable of the crime. Only a few months before his execution did she change her mind, when it was far too late for her opinion to have any kind of bearing (good or bad) on the case.

    @Mike P: I was sucked in, too. I feel sick now.

  69. 69
    Eric says:

    The prosecutor’s recent newspaper column was highly unconvincing. He said that Willingham would have been convicted of murder even in the absence of a finding of arson. WTF?!! Yes, it appears that Willingham was abusive towards his wife at times but that does not make him a triple murderer nor warrant execution.

    And — surprise! – Willingham reacted with obscenities at the deal of life in prison. If I were offered life in prison for a crime I didn’t commit, I would do the same thing.

    I’m sure it’s painful for the prosecutor and others in the Texas “justice” system to admit that they killed an innocent guy, so I’m not expecting to see that anytime soon…

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