Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You Don't Get 'Do-Overs' with Capital Punishment

"...if by an error of justice an innocent person is put to death, the mistake can never be corrected.”
John Stuart Mill
1868


When introduced to exonerated men last year after writing about Charles Chatman, wrongfully convicted of rape and found innocent through DNA evidence testing after serving 27 years in prison, I wondered, how can we be sure that an innocent person hasn't been executed?
Perhaps we now know of at least one case.
Cameron Todd Willingham, a high school dropout, unemployed father was executed in 2004, for the arson deaths of his three children, Karmon, Kameron and Amber in 1991.

It appears he may have been innocent.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project says, "He spent 12 years on death row in Texas before he was executed. Forensic science that supposedly proved the fire was intentionally set was central to Willingham's conviction was, in fact, completely invalid -- which the experts who testified should have known in 1992. A state forensic science commission in Texas is officially looking into the case and selected a widely respected expert to analyze whether the forensic testimony was valid. Last week the expert filed a report confirming what five other leading arson experts have found -- what passed for arson analysis in the Willingham case had no scientific basis..."
In fact, Craig Beyler a noted fire scientist hired by the state commission to look into Willingham's case concluded that "...investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated...“not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”"

If seems as if there should probably more than a little skepticism when we're reporting prison statistics. There are people behind bars that belong there. We can argue whether or not that's even true of death row.
But there are obviously some innocent people there. And with capitol punishment, there are no 'do-overs'...
You can read Cameron Todd Willingham's story here.

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