Thursday, August 27, 2009

Death of innocence

Never again can any supporters of the death penalty rest comfortably on the belief that we in the United States have never executed an innocent man.* Because the scientific evidence is now showing us that Todd Willingham should never have been convicted. Willingham was convicted of setting a fire that killed 3 small children, his children. He was executed in 2004, protesting his innocence to the end. In the past 5 years, the case has been reviewed by nine nationally-renowned fire scientists. Every single one of them concluded that the state's "experts" who labeled the fire an arson used folklore, not science. The most recent report basically said the Texas state fire marshal who ran the investigation didn't know the first thing about fire.

One of my recurring topics on this blog has been the nonsense junk science that passes as credible forensics in our criminal courts. Chief among my complaints has been fire science. Quite frankly, a lot of it is bunk. A lot of the state's investigators don't know what they're talking about and just plain make stuff up. And in this case, this investigator spun a fairytale that a fire was set intentionally when the truth was he had no idea how the fire started and he didn't investigate several of the possibilities. But a prosecutor ate it up. And a jury ate it up. And appeals courts ate it up. And it's only 5 years after Todd Willingham died that we're finally getting the picture that his conviction was based on a lie.

Some will undoubtedly refuse to accept that anyone has proven Todd Willingham was innocent. It still could have been an intentionally-set fire, they'll say. That's a pretty cheap effort to deny the significance of Mr. Willingham's case. The very basis for the state's claim that there was even a crime was a big, steaming pile of horse manure. We most definitely get to put him in the innocent column.

So let's be honest and take the "we've never executed an innocent person" crutch out of the death penalty debate. It was always just a way for pro-death penalty folks to soothe their consciences, anyway. Pro-deathers could just ignore the question of how they would feel about an innocent person being executed by hiding behind the fiction that we'd never executed an innocent. Time to stop hiding. Todd Willingham should not have been executed. He's the mistake we did not catch in time. Who knows how many other mistakes are out there, hoping to be caught in time. From now on, anyone who wants to express support for the death penalty on this blog better be willing to accept the reality that a man has died due to our flawed criminal justice system. If you're not comfortable with the death of Todd Willingham, though, might I encourage you to re-think whether you really can continue to support the punishment that makes it now impossible for us to right the tremendous wrong done to him.

*I sort of assume that we can all at least tacitly acknowledge that given our racial history, it's highly likely that at least one innocent black man was probably wrongly executed sometime between the Civil War and the 1972 Furman decision, but we never mention that in the death penalty debate.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this unsettling report. I don't think anyone ho is the least reasonable has doubted this for a long time now.

I believe it's one of the most compelling reasons to abandon the death penalty as a viable solution to managing violent and dangerous criminals.

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