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Willingham Case Highlights Fears of Executing Innocent People

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September 2, 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham's last words were: "I have been persecuted 12 years for something I didn't do." And now, five years after he was executed by the state of Texas, Willingham is probably as close to an exoneration as he'll ever get. The blogs and news media have been filled with commentary about the revelation that Willingham was most likely innocent when he was executed, and it's renewing calls for an examination of the death penalty in this country.

In The Hill blog, John Feehery writes:

Without getting into all of the facts in this particular case, it is clear that we live with an imperfect justice system. The system makes mistakes. Wrong people are accused and convicted. Witnesses sometimes misremember the facts, and sometimes they lie for their own self-interest. Sometimes cops make mistakes, and sometimes prosecutors reach the wrong conclusions.

But the death penalty, when carried out, is always perfect. It always kills the target, and kills the target permanently. And once you kill the accused, you can't really turn back the clock. If the system turns out to be wrong, as it does on occasion, saying you are sorry doesn't do much good.

The Los Angeles Times reports that a new study by University of California, Santa Cruz, professor Craig Haney finds that support for the death penalty among Californians is down:

A majority of Californians still favor the death penalty, but their support has waned from 79% to 66% over the last two decades as fears of executing the wrongly convicted escalate, a researcher reported Tuesday.

…Support for the death penalty plunged to 26% when respondents were offered the alternative of guaranteed life imprisonment and the requirement that the offender work to pay restitution to victims and their families, Haney said.

Jonah Lehrer offered this fascinating meditation on the injustice of Willingham's execution in the Daily Dish:

These stories of a failed justice are important, and not just because they expose specific errors…Instead, I think these harrowing tales need to be told because they contradict a powerful moral intuition we all share, which can unfortunately lead us to turn a blind eye: Because we believe in justice, we ignore stories of injustice.

Finally, the Philadelphia Inquirer brought the argument back to present-day by comparing Willingham's case to that of Troy Davis:

Davis' and Willingham's cases again raise strong questions about capital punishment and whether it can ever be fairly administered, especially when the defendant is poor or a minority, like Davis, and statistically more likely to get a death sentence.

...The risk of a wrongful execution is simply too great to continue with capital punishment.

Davis's case was recently reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, and sent back to a lower court for the evidentiary hearing he's been asking for all along. Hopefully Georgia will learn a lesson from Texas, and give Davis the chance at life that Willingham never had.

h/t: Steve Hall, StandDown

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