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Shouting From the Rooftops

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August 31, 2009

As Chris wrote last week, an investigation into the 1991 fire that killed the three children of Cameron Willingham found that it was not intentionally set, and that Willingham, who was charged with arson and subsequently executed in 2004 for the crime, may very well have been innocent. Two notable pieces followed last week’s news.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times states:

The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.

…The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.

And a lengthier piece in the New Yorker that provides a recounting of the fire, the trial and subsequent legal appeals on behalf of Willingham, concludes:

Some legal scholars believe that the commission may narrowly assess the reliability of the scientific evidence. 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 bears repeating that 135 people have been exonerated from this country’s death rows since 1973. One of those exonerees is Ernest Willis, who served 17 years after being convicted and sentenced to death for a crime nearly identical to Willingham’s. Given the overwhelming evidence from four separate forensic examinations of the fire — conducted by the Chicago Tribune, the Innocence Project (PDF), Dr. Gerald Hurst and Craig Beyler (PDF) — Texas has executed an innocent man. That state’s investigation of the evidence in Willingham’s case is too little, too late.

The New Yorker article includes a quote from Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurring opinion in Kansas v. Marsh in 2006:

In his opinion, Scalia declared that, in the modern judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

It’s time to start shouting.

h/t: Steve Hall, StandDown

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