The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)
Today, the family of Cameron Todd Willingham filed a petition calling for his posthumous exoneration. Exoneration, because he is almost certainly innocent. Posthumous because the state of Texas executed him anyway. More info can be found here, courtesy of the Innocence Project.
A Texas father of three, Willingham was convicted and executed for the alleged murder of his three daughters by arson. However, in a 2011 report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded that unreliable fire science led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction and 2004 execution. Evidence cited as proof of an intentionally set fire, such as pour patterns, discoloration and “crazed” glass, has since been discredited.
Damon Thibodeaux, released after 15 years on death row.
After 15 years of solitary confinement on Louisiana’s death row, Damon Thibodeaux became the 300th person exonerated based on DNA evidence. He had been wrongfully convicted of raping and strangling his 14-year-old step-cousin Crystal Champagne, largely based on a coerced confession.
Five years ago, the Innocence Project and the office of Jefferson Parish DA Paul Connick reopened the investigation into his case and last Friday revealed compelling DNA evidence that was used to exonerate him.
Owen Barber shot Daniel Petrole to death in Bristow, Virginia on March 15, 2001. Barber was convicted of murder and got a sentence of 60 years. In 2002, Justin Wolfe was sent to Virginia’s death row for paying Barber to kill Petrole. But did he?
Richard Miles was convicted of murder in Dallas in 1996 and released in 2009 after it was discovered prosecutors hid reports implicating other suspects. (Image via texasobserver.org)
Our criminal justice system is less than perfect, a non-controversial fact which is one of the reasons we oppose the use of an absolute and irreversible punishment like execution.
The new National Registry of Exonerations, produced by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools, provides a glimpse of just how imperfect. It lists almost 900 known exonerations since 1989. Around 100 of those listed had been sent to death row; the remainder had been sent to prison for everything from homicide to white collar crimes.
The Registry’s accompanying report (p. 84, Table 18), documents another 1,170 exonerations from a group of major law enforcement scandals, mostly involving drug crimes.
This snapshot of known exonerations is revealing. According to the report summary, the chief causes of the wrongful convictions were faulty or perjured witness testimony and official misconduct, though almost a quarter involved bad forensic science, and 16% of those exonerated had initially falsely confessed.
Two days ago, a federal district court in Savannah, Georgia denied Troy Davis’ petition– ruling that Troy didn’t reach the extraordinarily high legal bar to prove his innocence.
But I was in that courtroom in June, along with other Amnesty representatives. We saw the witnesses and heard the facts first-hand, and as Executive Director Larry Cox put it “nobody walking out of that hearing could view this as an open-and-shut case”.
So how is it that Troy has been put back on track for execution?
The courts have been far too comfortable leaving room for doubt, error and bias. There is no physical or scientific evidence linking Troy to the crime. In fact, Troy had to rely on witnesses who the judge didn’t find credible, even though these are the same witnesses on which his conviction hangs!
Because the courts have failed to resolve the doubts in this case, we’re taking Troy’s story back to the court of public opinion. We want every news outlet talking about the disastrous system that would allow a man to be put to death even when doubts persist about his guilt.