Thursday, December 09, 2004

Innocent Man Dying: How Texas executed a man who committed no crime

Once again the Chicago Tribune is examining the death Penalty and once again it is coming up wanting ( a previous series of Trib articles showed that in a ten year period in Illinois as many inmates had been exonerated and released from death row (12) as had been executed. This series touched the conscience of then Governor Ryan(R)so much that he mass-commuted the sentences of everyone on death row to life in prison and imposed a state-wide moratorium on the death penalty)

Now they examine the case of a Texas man almost certainly innocent who was nonetheless put to death:
Prosecutors relied on disproven scientific evidence to convict executed Texas inmate

To those of use who have spent time on the defense side of the criminal justice system, its axiomatic that innocent people have been put to death by our justice system. However proof of that assertion has been hard to come by since most re-examination of capital cases stop when the prisoner dies. This case provides the clearest evidence yet that the flaws in our capital punishment system have killed innocent people.

What Happened in this Case is Tragic enough, three little girls Killed in a fire, what the criminal justice system di to their father is sickening however. Consider his version of events first:
Willingham told investigators that he was awakened about an hour after his wife left by Amber's cries of "Daddy, Daddy."

The house, he said, was so full of smoke that he could not see the doorway leading out of the bedroom. Crouching low, he went into the hall. He said he saw that there was not much smoke in the kitchen but "couldn't see anything but black" toward the front of the house.

With the electrical circuits popping, Willingham said he made his way to the girls' bedroom. He saw an orange glow on the ceiling, but little else because the smoke was so heavy. He said he stood up to step over the childproof gate, and his hair caught fire.

He crouched back down, he told investigators, and felt along the floor for the twins but could not find them. He said he called out for Amber and felt on top of her bed, but she was not there.

When debris began to fall from the ceiling, burning his shoulder, he said he fled through the hall and out the front door.

He tried to go back into the house, he said, but it was too hot. He saw neighbors and told them to call the Fire Department, screaming, "My babies is in there and I can't get them out."

Neighbor Mary Barbee told police she saw Willingham in the front yard and she ran to ask a neighbor to call for help because her telephone was disconnected.

Meanwhile, Willingham told investigators, he took a pool cue and knocked out two windows overlooking the front porch to try to get into the bedroom.

Barbee said that when she returned, Willingham was standing by a chain-link fence as heavy smoke billowed from the house. Just as she neared his yard, "large fire suddenly bellowed out from around the front of the house," she told investigators, then the windows blew out.

She said that was when Willingham rushed to his garage and pushed his car away from the fire scene.

At that moment, Burvin Smith arrived after hearing the fire call over a radio scanner. Smith told police that Willingham was yelling that his "babies were in the house" and "acting real hysterical."

He said he restrained Willingham from going onto the porch.

Not Good enough for the neighbors apparently:
Willingham became a suspect almost immediately, when neighbors such as Barbee told investigators they didn't believe he tried hard enough to rescue his children.
The day after the fire, police said, Willingham complained that he could not find a dartboard as he walked through the wreckage. Neighbors said they heard loud music coming from the truck of a friend who came to help salvage belongings.

well that clearly makes him a murder doesn;t it? That he has a non-standard grief reaction? apparently the Police Chaplain also believed he had a PHD in psychology:

"Eleven days after the fire, a police chaplain who had responded to the blaze said he had grown suspicious that Willingham's emotions were not genuine.

"It seemed to me that Cameron was too distraught," said the chaplain, George Monaghan.

and on that basis he was charged with murder and a chain of supposition and inference led directly to his execution without a shred of solid evidence
How can this happen? well first you have investigators who ignore the latest in scientific knowledge:
A groundbreaking document in fire investigation, the National Fire Protection Association's NFPA 921, was published on Feb. 10, 1992, less than two months after the fatal fire at the Willingham house.

Filled with the new revelations about fire science, NFPA 921 was developed by 30 fire experts, including Lentini and DeHaan, and was written as a guideline for fire investigators. It is considered the standard on fire investigation and is a key reference text for the Texas fire marshal's office. Some investigators, however, have refused to acknowledge it, preferring to stick to the old ways

The you use that dubious outdated information to produce a favorable, but untrue result:
"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire," said Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. "It was just a fire."

Ryland, chief of the Effie Fire Department and a former fire instructor at Louisiana State University, said that, in his workshop, he tried to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators described. When he could not, he said, it "made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. ... They executed this guy and they've just got no idea--at least not scientifically--if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set."

Now You get to go to trial. So you start with the prosecution's favorite flavor of suborned perjury the Jailhouse snitch with the unbelievable story:

Prosecutors presented as their first witness jail inmate Johnny E. Webb, a drug addict who said he took psychiatric medication for post-traumatic stress syndrome, the result of being raped behind bars.
Webb testified that Willingham, after repeatedly denying he had caused the fire, confessed to Webb one day as they spoke through a chuckhole in a steel door at the county jail.
Webb said Willingham told him he set the fire to cover up his wife's physical abuse of one of the girls. The girls, however, had no injuries other than those suffered in the fire.

Now add an "investigator" who is basically a prosecution Lapdog
The fire tells a story," Vasquez testified. "I am just the interpreter. I am looking at the fire, and I am interpreting the fire. That is what I know. That is what I do best. And the fire does not lie. It tells me the truth."

Vasquez testified that of the 1,200 to 1,500 fires he had investigated, nearly all had been arson, and he had never been wrong.


except in this case "All four consultants said Vasquez made serious errors in his testimony. For example, when he said an accelerant must have been used to set the fire because wood could not burn hot enough to melt an aluminum threshold, he was wrong. It can."

now add an unsympathetic defendant and microanalyze every decision he makes under extreme stress:
Willingham also had been in trouble with the law. A 10th-grade dropout from Ardmore, Okla., he had sniffed glue and paint, and he had committed a string of crimes, including burglary, grand larceny and car theft.

Patrick Batchelor, then the district attorney, told reporters Willingham set the fire because he wanted more time for beer-drinking and dart throwing. The children got in the way.

The prosecution's case also relied on the neighbors who said Willingham could have done more to save his family.

The experts who reviewed the case didn't put any stock in the claims that Willingham's behavior was damning. They say experience shows that there is no way to predict how people will react in a fire or to the grief of losing loved ones.

Then pack your jury with gullible pro-prosecution jurors who disobey their oath to uphold the reasonable doubt standard and substitute their own made up judgments and add TWO HOURS to determine a Man's life:
The jurors deliberated a little over an hour before finding Willingham guilty. In interviews, they said there was never a question.

Laura Marx said she would have found Willingham guilty even without the arson finding solely because he did not try to save his children.
{not an actual crime anywhere but in the Juror's mind}
Jurors deliberated only slightly longer in handing out the death penalty

Presto! one defendant Sent to death Row!

"Wait, hang on what about the appeals process", you say, "it would certainly catch these glaring errors wouldn't it?" Glad you asked:

By January 2004, Willingham's appellate lawyer had all but given up hope. Willingham was scheduled to be executed on Feb. 17, and Walter Reaves knew that in Texas, stays are rarely granted.

Then Pat Cox, one of Willingham's cousins, called Reaves. Cox, a retired nurse who lives in Ardmore, Okla., had seen Gerald Hurst on television and thought he could help save Willingham.

concluded it was riddled with "critical errors in interpreting the evidence." But, he added, the mistakes were not malicious; they simply reflected the state of fire science at the time.

He went on in the report to systematically dismiss all the indicators Fogg and Vasquez cited as proof of arson. According to Hurst's report, "most of the conclusions reached by the fire marshal would be considered invalid in light of current knowledge."

Four days before the scheduled execution, Reaves attached Hurst's report to a petition seeking relief from Texas' highest court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and from the governor.

"I didn't see any way the court was going to deny us a hearing on it," Reaves said. "No one could in good conscience go forward with that evidence."

day saved right? Science triumphs and an innocent man is spared! Nope: a little more prosecutorial misconduct took care of that:
The response from local prosecutors included a two-paragraph affidavit from Ronnie Kuykendall, the brother of Willingham's former wife. He said that Stacy, who had divorced Willingham while he was on Death Row, had recently visited him, then gathered the family to say that he had confessed.

But she said in an interview that was untrue. At the time of the trial, she said she had believed in her husband's innocence, but over the years, after studying the evidence and the trial testimony, she became convinced he was guilty.

In their final meeting, however, he did not confess, she told the Tribune
that and the neat procedural trick of claiming this information wasn't newly discovered evidence since the techniques and knowledge were available at time of trial (even though it was THEIR OWN INVESTIGATORS who ignored them)
and this being Teaxas and all, this doesn;t have a happy ending:
The courts and Gov. Rick Perry declined to halt the execution.
On the day of Willingham's execution, his father and step-mother, Gene and Eugenia Willingham, spent four hours with him, then said their goodbyes.

At 6 p.m., Willingham was brought to the death chamber at the prison at Huntsville. In a final statement, he avowed his innocence, said goodbye to friends and hurled expletives at his former wife, who had come to witness the execution.

and there you have it, An innocent man dead. Not a saint, not maybe even a nice guy, but a man who did not commit a crime for which he was executed.

I've met several people on death row, and too many of them are either innocent or certainly not proven guilty. They are victims of a system that is heavily biased towards prosecutors (most judges are ex-prosecutors, never PD's) and badly flawed. Life an death in this country is too often dependant on the spin of a roulette wheel of justice, rather than any articulable principle. And if it happened once it would be too often, but it happens far more than we'd like to admit. The system makes mistakes and some people pay for those mistakes with their lives


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