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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Did Texas Execute An Innocent Man?

The L.A. Times today reported that a panel of arson experts has found that a man executed in 1994 for the arson murder of his 3 children was convicted on faulty expert testimony. (Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2006, Page A-16, "Panel Says Faulty Arson Evidence Led To Execution").

The most important issue this development should impact is the rush to speedy executions. The crime in this case occurred in 1991. Cameron Willingham was executed in February, 1994. Texas is proud of its efficiency. The state far surpasses any other in rapid executions.

This case may answer the often shouted demand for "speedy justice." Complaints about lengthy delays and multiple appeals deny the need for thorough review of every aspect of these cases BEFORE the terminal event, not afterward.

Willingham had continued to proclaim his innocence up to the moment he was lethally injected. He had claimed that the fire was accidental, but prosecution expert testimony opined that the fire was of human origin based on interpretation of patterns of burn marks.

I suspect that Texas will defend their actions by denigrating the panel as biased, citing the fact that Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project commissioned the report, although no member of the panel was connected with Willingham's case, and none were paid for their work.

All are apparently independent, well-respected in their field. Their stated concern is that arson investigators are too often field educated firemen who have insufficient training and education in the scientific foundations of thei field.

Previous revelations (including conclusive DNA examination) have proved the unreliability of testimony by eyewitnesses, informants, police officers' versions of defendants' confessions, psychiatric experts, and fingerprint experts.

The unreliability of expert testimony is troubling because it strikes at the judicial system's reliance on scientific evidence as "the best" form of proof. Recent studies have cast doubt on work done by police lab experts in Texas and California, including incompetent analysis of blood, fingerprints, ballistics.

One bad expert employed by a police lab can screw up hundreds of cases.

Another obvious point this case speaks to is whether innocent people have been in fact been executed in recent years.

Although many cases have been documented, prosecutors, judges, elected executives and legislators, and many in the public continue to believe that claims are exaggerated, unproved, involve antiquated practices, or are motivated by soft headed opposition to capital punishment.

The fact that this article was "buried" on Page 16 of the newspaper is also troubling. If these findings are upheld, it should persuade more people that the implementation of the death penalty is fatally flawed.


  1. It's always been amazing to me that most people -- especially conservatives -- distrust the government's competence and honesty in general but then assume that a process as heated, politicized, and technical as the death penalty system must be totally flawless.

    Whether this distrust comes from an ideological basis or just the experience of having made a trip to the DMV, I don't know how anyone with the slighest healthy cynicism about government beauracracy could feel comfortable with the idea of the state being in charge of putting people to death.

  2. From one corner (the right one) self proclaimed “conservatives” do claim to distrust government competence, while out of the other corner (the wrong one) they claim to believe that the judicial system works. But they do not care if it is “flawless.”

    In fact, conservative justices often affirm convictions and death sentences despite acknowledging multiple errors in the trials, some that might shock a scrupled person. The justification written into opinions: the accused is entitled to a “fair” trial, not a “perfect” trial.

    But this should be no more amazing than the double think about the “sanctity of life” supporting so-called “Right To Life” arguments, while people of the same faith and philosophy also sternly support the death penalty in principle and practice and fail to be troubled by its flaws.

    As you know, my definition of “conservative” involves limiting the government’s power over individuals whenever possible. Since the greatest exercise of that power is taking a person’s life or liberty, I call myself a conservative when I defend against such state action.

    Ironically, so-called “liberals” are those who trust government to “do the right thing.” As such, people calling themselves “liberals” have encouraged the death penalty by supporting laws which lessen the proof needed to convict people while also increasing punishments. “Liberals” also find the death penalty such a “distasteful” subject that they absent themselves from jury duty while pro-death jurors have no such qualms or scruples.