Death Penalty

Texas Officials Continue Coverup of One Possible Wrongful Execution; Fight To Proceed With Another

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A Texas appeals court has ordered a halt to a district court's inquiry into whether Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for setting a 1992 fire that killed his three daughters, was innocent. The stay was sought by Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson. It's merely the latest attempt by Texas officials (Thompson's office prosecuted Willingham), including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, to stave off any formal inquiry into Willingham's execution. Arson specialists now say Willingham was convicted based on flawed and outdated science, and there's little forensic evidence to support the theory that the fire was set intentionally.

Meanwhile, Texas District Attorney Lynn Switzer told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that the state should be able to execute Hank Skinner without first turning over crime scene evidence for DNA testing that Skinner says will prove his innocence. The Court has already ruled that there's no constitutional right to DNA testing in such cases. Skinner is arguing that the state is obligated to turn over the evidence under federal civil rights law. (I previously wrote about Skinner's case here and here.)

The striking thing about both cases is that Texas government officials are staking out a position of ignorance. That is, they don't want to know if either man is innocent. That's not how they'd phrase it, of course. But in the Willingham case they're thwarting efforts merely to investigate the possibility that Wilingham might have been innocent. In the Skinner case they're fighting a DNA test—which Skinner's attorneys have offered to pay for themselves—that if prosecutors are correct would undeniably establish Skinner's guilt. But there's a chance it could implicate someone else, or complicate their case against Skinner. So they'd rather not test.

Of course in both cases they know that a finding of innocence would further undermine support for the death penalty (which is now under fire even from establishment conservatives). So it's better just not to know.

Perry, Thompson, Switzer, and their cohorts should consider the possibility that their callous indifference in the face of considerable doubt about both men's convictions—and that even after the Willingham fiasco they're still fighting to execute Skinner without being absolutely sure of his guilt—only confirms suspicions that we have a flawed system stacked with perverse incentives, all of which not only encourages the pursuit of convictions at the expense of justice, but then pressures state actors to double down rather than admit to the possibility that they made mistakes.

Put another way, in fighting to keep us all in the dark about Skinner and Willingham's actual guilt, these staunch capital punishment supporters are providing data points for the strongest arguments against the death penalty.

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  1. Put another way, in fighting to keep us all in the dark about Skinner and Willingham’s actual guilt, these staunch capital punishment supporters are providing data points for the strongest arguments against the death penalty.

    Oh. Then we withdraw.

  2. I’ll start out by saying that there should be a death penalty – if someone is proven beyond a shodow of doubt that they’re a completely inhuman sociopath without compunction for the rights of their fellow citizens, and willing to commit the most gruesome acts of violence simply for their personal amusement, I’d rather expend a few bucks to remove them from the gene pool than to spend several million dollars to confine them for years upon years upon years, with the possibility they may once again be set loose to wreak whatever mayhem their imaginations may concoct.

    That being said, the whole attitude of the authorities in Texas is utterly repugnant, and having displayed such an attitude, they should be immediately disqualified and removed from any position where they have the power and authority to hold sway or influence the lives of their fellow citizens – for in many respects, they are simply well dressed and gentrified murders themselves.

    It’s about justice, assholes, not a win/loss score count.

    The aspect that potentially exculpatory evidence is withheld, with the blessing of the system, is extremely disturbing.

    1. There should be, but the states have proven time and again that they are too incompetent to process such a punishment.

      I’d be for a rule where corrupt and criminally malpracticing DAs can take their victim’s place.

      1. I’d support death penalty for members of the “justice” system who knowingly convict the innocent.

        1. This. If anything deserves death it’s abuse of authority.

        2. I would extend this to such persons as Perry, Thompson, and Switzer who *don’t care* whether those they execute might be innocent.

      2. There should be, but the states have proven time and again that they are too incompetent to process such a punishment.

        More incompetent than vigilante lynch mobs or death squads?

    2. It’s actually more expensive to execute someone than to give them life in prison.

      1. Turns out that all those pesky “rights” make it a very expensive judicial battle to actually kill a prisoner.

        People fight a lot harder when the outcome is death than when the outcome is life in a prison.

      2. I’d be really interested in seeing any numbers you can supply to back up that assertion. Along with an examination of how much of those ‘costs’ are churned by groundless appeals on technical issues that would not change the outcome, nor the fact that a sociopath is a sociopath, and simply wanted to see the world burn, or his victims squeal.

      3. It’s actually more expensive to execute someone than to give them life in prison.

        Has it always been that way?

        Are there statistics on execution costs available from 10th century B.C. Egypt or 1st century A.D. Rome?

    3. The state has shown itself to be utterly corrupt and incompetent. It should not, ever, be allowed to kill someone. Ever.

      1. Godwin alert.

        Even someone like Hitler? Or Stalin? Or Ted Bundy? Or Gacy?

        1. Tell you what, buddy. You pull the trigger if you’re so eager to kill.

          1. I don’t advocate anything I wouldn’t be willing to take care of myself, as distasteful as it may be. Probably one of the reasons I’ve never owned a personal firearm. Might be tempted to use it.

        2. I wouldn’t kill any of those people, heinous as they were. Throw them in a cell and keep them there.

  3. Death Penalty Paradox FTW, bishes . . .

  4. The Willingham case is one thing because if the fire was accidental then no one is to blame. The Skinner case is another matter, because if he is innocent that means there may be a killer running around loose. Not being interested to know if they have the right man or not is just sick.

    1. “if he is innocent that means there may be a killer running around loose.”

      Let me just tell you how painfully frustrating that can be.

  5. Skinner is a piece of shit
    Willingham is a dead piece of shit

    1. And you’re a really obvious troll. 0/10, try harder next time.

      1. You responded so I’d say his trolling was a success.

        1. Trolling is only a success when somebody response to disagree, not when they respond to point out the obviousness of the trolling. Or those would seem to be the rules followed on Fark.

          1. Are you calling me a troll being that you responded to disagree?

          2. Bad rules. Attention is attention.

  6. You know, Radley, I was having a really good day up until now. Nice little nutpunch here right before the weekend.

    Rick Perry may be the best argument for Texas secession. Just to keep him away from the rest of us.

    1. Whoa whoa whoa, there are a lot of us Texans who don’t like that idea.

  7. So the judge ruled that the prosecutor whose work was being questioned didn’t have standing, and then we’re surprised when that got successfully appealed? Seems like a strange place to attack the system. Of all the bad behavior the prosecutor is accused of, this is not an example.

    1. He didn’t have standing. This isn’t the case of Prosecutor v. Willingham. This is State of Texas v. Willingham. The prosecutor is irrelevant, quite frankly.

      1. But the criminal justice system exists to further the political careers of prosecutors, so why shouldn’t he have standing?

  8. It’s not about justice, it’s about collecting scalps.

    1. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Henry Wade.

  9. I don’t know why anyone should be surprised by this.

    Prosecutors care only about getting convictions because high conviction rates can be used as stepping stones to higher office.

    Judges are reluctant to overturn convictions because faith in the system is more important than actual results.

    That makes executing an innocent man preferable to failing to convict anyone or admitting to a mistake.

    1. Why aren’t those innocent executees more appreciative of the security afforded by their deaths? Fucking Ingrates.

  10. As a Texan, I’m disheartened by these stories. But as a Dallas County resident, I’m pleased with the stories of Craig Watkins, the Dallas County DA, who’s going out of his way to correct the wrongful convictions by his predecessors.

    1. If you have ever watched The Thin Blue Line, you would know that he has a lot of work to do.

      1. The most memorable line from that movie was someone who worked at the DA’s office talking about the kind of culture the former DA fomented. The former DA once said something like “hell, any attorney can send a guilty man to jail. It takes a real lawyer to send an innocent man there.”

        That’s a Jeffrey Dahmer level scumbag.

        1. That is the defense attorney who says that. That case was pretty outrageous. The problem is that as Rac says below, the death penalty opponents will lie to. I honestly don’t know who to believe in these cases.

          But Perry is still a scumbag.

          1. “”I honestly don’t know who to believe in these cases.”””

            And we don’t need to know who to believe to retry Willingham. No arson, no murder. It’s like someone being convicted of killing someone with a gun, then years later, they say you probably didn’t possess a gun at the time. It really throws out the mechanics of how the alledged murder was committed, which strikes at the heart of the case.

  11. Godwin alert.

    You know who else said, “Vengeance is mine”?

    1. Leo Tolstoy, at the beginning of Anna Karenina

    2. Richard Nixon?

    3. Stewie Griffin? Oh, wait – that was “victory is mine”

  12. Perry is one of the biggest scumbags in politics. He is just horrible. I shudder every time someone mentions him as a possible Presidential candidate.

    This is all his fault. Yeah, the prosecutors are craven. But Perry is in charge. He is entrusted with clemency power. He could end this whole thing tomorrow if he chose to.

    I know generally Texas has a decent government and is not headed for bankruptcy. But all things considered, Perry is one of the worst governors in America.

  13. This is the guy who was convicted on shitty fire expert testimony, and sentenced to death because he liked Iron Maiden. Fuck you, Texas.

    1. Don’t forget West Memphis, AR. They falsely convicted three kids of rape / murder because they liked Maiden. This also means they also let a real rapist / murderer go free.

      But whatever, he probably didn’t listen to that devil music.

      1. God, don’t get me started on that particular travesty.

    2. Well, he wouldn’t turn down his stereo, so…

  14. Skinner’s lawyers, with his approval, decided not to test the DNA evidence befoer trial. I assume that Mr. Skinner didn’t want it done for some reason. The legal question, not the moreal one, is whether having decided not to test the evidence at trial, where evidence is adduced, one can come in, many years later, and demand that it be done at the appellate level.

    The Willingham case was tried, and he was convicted on evidence that included not only the arson testimony, but the testimony of various witnesses tha testified he did it, and his former wife, the mother of the dead kids, has just recently re-stated that she thinks he did it and wants the execution to go forward. Death penlaty opponents will do anything to stop an execution. Their propoganda machine will give you only the facts they want you to hear. We weren’t at the trial. We don’t know all the facts.

    1. I agree with the Skinner case. But with Willlingham, no arson, no murder. Doesn’t matter what the ex-wife thinks. It could very well have been an accidental fire.

    2. rac,

      Your post is full of fail. His ex-wife has changed stories about her “testimony” so many times that it is now impossible to trust a word out of her mouth. The “arson” testimony from Vasquez and Fogg has been shown to be completely scientifically inaccurate, not to mention a horrible collection of non-scientific “gut instincts”. The idea that this is enough evidence to sentence a man to death makes a mockery of our criminal justice system.

      I would suggest you revisit the New Yorker article from last year for more details.

      http://www.newyorker.com/onlin…..gham-case/

      1. Sorry, wrong New Yorker link- here’s the original article-

        http://www.newyorker.com/repor…..ntPage=all

        1. I read this article, or parts of it, a while back. But I will re-read it. I do know that his wife made several inconsitent statements. But she said just before his execution, Willingham confessed to having started the fire. Maybe it was just bittereness. Who knows. It sounds failry plausible that a man might want to get that off his chest just before the curtain falls.

          My point, which I will stick by, is that we weren’t at the trial. Death penalty opponents have tried desperately to find evidence of an innocent person being executed. We weren’t there to see how the evidence was presented. The experts used by the defense say the testing violated certain protocols, and maybe it did. I do not believe that at this point they can really say that it was absolutely NOT arson. Or better yet, they can SAY it, but a jury may not have believed them. Then where are you? The ONLY purpose of a re-trial, in the media really, is to support the anti-death penalty groups.

          By the way, I will venture to say that those anti-death penalty people would be against the death penalty of the most heinous killer, if the murder was committed on TV, and the victim was slathered with DNA from the perpetrator. So, I just quetion all the excitable media attention this gets.

          1. I do know that his wife made several inconsitent statements.

            Normally, when people make several inconsistent statements you don’t use their testimony as evidence that can be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” whether it’s for shoplifting or murder.

            We weren’t there to see how the evidence was presented. The experts used by the defense say the testing violated certain protocols, and maybe it did.

            Funny that, Governor Perry has made it next to impossible for us to ascertain any of these facts since he’s buried the reinvestigation of the trial. Not to mention Vazquez, the original arson forensics investigator is dead and has no way of testifying how his statements were used. The fact that people are in a hurry to cover this up is not a sign that they have confidence in the veracity of the conviction.

            The ONLY purpose of a re-trial, in the media really, is to support the anti-death penalty groups.

            Um, no. The purpose of a reinvestigation -which may or may not result in a retrial- is to determine if an innocent man was put to death by the state. The reinvestigation has been pretty much buried by Governor Perry.

            Any American who gives a rats ass about maintaining a transparent criminal justice system should be highly disturbed by the outcome of events in this case.

          2. “”The ONLY purpose of a re-trial, in the media really, is to support the anti-death penalty groups.””

            Bullshit.

            The purpose would be to allow him to use more accurate information about the fire based on science that did not exist at the time of his trial in his defense.

            1. He’s dead. Can’t re-try him. All you can do is “prove” he was innocent. And that cannot be done, to anyone’s satisfaction, except for those who already come to the table with that preconception. The fact is he was found guilty by a jury. There were numerous appeals. He was executed. The purpose of those pushing the case is not to “improve” prosecutions going forward. It is merely to stop the death penalty. That’s my only point.

              1. The fact is he was found guilty by a jury.

                Using testimony that has now been shown to NOT be “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

                There were numerous appeals.

                No, there were not. There was one, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Willingham a writ of habeas corpus a month before his execution.

                The purpose of those pushing the case is not to “improve” prosecutions going forward. It is merely to stop the death penalty.

                Just because you keep saying this doesn’t make it true.

                Doesn’t it bother you that the evidence in this story strongly suggests that an innocent man was put to death by the state? No matter what you feel about the death penalty, this should bother EVERYONE.

              2. “”He’s dead. Can’t re-try him. “”

                Right, my bad.

                Tman beat me to it. I second his post.

            2. “The purpose of those pushing the case is not to “improve” prosecutions going forward. It is merely to stop the death penalty.”

              This may be true. It doesn’t prove that they’re incorrect.

    3. I’d be all for an evidentiary rule that prohibits ex-spouses from giving testimony. Is there anyone more liable to rejoice in seeing you ruined than your ex?

      1. None I dare say.

    4. Skinner’s lawyers, with his approval, decided not to test the DNA evidence befoer trial. I assume that Mr. Skinner didn’t want it done for some reason. The legal question, not the moreal one, is whether having decided not to test the evidence at trial, where evidence is adduced, one can come in, many years later, and demand that it be done at the appellate level.

      Not true. Skinner wrote a letter to his attorney asking for DNA testing. His attorney declined, deciding against Skinner’s wishes that doing so might implicate him. Skinner has always maintained his innocence.

      By the way, that attorney was a court-appointed public defender. He was formerly a prosecutor who at one time had prosecuted Skinner on unrelated charges. He had to resign as a prosecutor after allegations of misconduct in a forfeiture case. For representing Skinner, he was paid the amount of money he owed the government in fines from those charges.

      1. I stand corrected. Though, that still is the “legal” question. As I said, not the moral one.

      2. “”By the way, that attorney was a court-appointed public defender. He was formerly a prosecutor who at one time had prosecuted Skinner on unrelated charges. He had to resign as a prosecutor after allegations of misconduct in a forfeiture case. For representing Skinner, he was paid the amount of money he owed the government in fines from those charges.””

        Well then, in that light, he should be allowed to get the DNA tested.

      3. Not true. Skinner wrote a letter to his attorney asking for DNA testing. His attorney declined, deciding against Skinner’s wishes that doing so might implicate him.

        Would that not be grounds for disbarment?

  15. I lived in Texas from 1999-2003. One summer a local radio station kept track of Texas’ executions vs. Barry Bonds home runs. I forget the winner–I suspect it was Bonds, actually. The culture of Texas is extraordinarily pro execution and pro violence.

    At least, compared to New York, Michigan, and Washington and Oregon, my other homes over the years.

    1. “The culture of Texas is extraordinarily…pro violence. At least, compared to…Michigan…”

      lolwhut?

  16. “”The culture of Texas is extraordinarily pro execution and pro violence.””

    Don’t mess with Texas.

  17. Of course in both cases they know that a finding of innocence would further undermine support for the death penalty

    How so?

    The government killed innocent people with B-29’s; that was not cited as a reason to junk B-29’s?

  18. Y’all must be awful young. There’s been a several people executed that are now believed to have been innocent.
    I remember working on papers in college
    35 years ago about this. Nothing was done then, nothing will be done now.
    All that matters is somebody gets found guilty , so the case gets cleared. I gave up a full scholarship to law school for this very reason. There is no place for right and wrong in a court of law, it is totally irrelevant.

  19. I can’t help think of Mumia, still breathing after all these years, y’know?

    I support the death penalty–you take a life in any way besides accident or self defense, yours is forfeit.

    And yes, I’d do it myself.

    I would like more certitude in the process, but I’d like it to run both ways. If DNA can exonerate, it should also be able to overrule the endless appeals that make the death penalty expensive.

    And surety is very important.

    But I’m starting to question these Balko pieces. There was a bit on the news this morning about police in the UK overwhelming Twitter. Seems they decided to show people just how busy they are by tweeting every call they had to answer. And, needless to say, there were alot. I can’t help think that for every ‘bad cop’ piece I see, there are thousands–perhaps, given the size of the US, millions–of ‘good cop’ or ‘regular cop’ stories that will never get a byline.

    And then I mentally(and anecdotally) compare the bad cop stories to bad experiences I’ve had/heard about with people in other jobs. Baggers that crush your eggs. Restaurants that serve cold/bad/rotten food. Contractors that screw up your house(hell, there are TV shows devoted to this one). I could go on. These jobs aren’t ‘the man’, they’re not authority–but they are jobs, jobs in which people are fuck-ups, or nasty, or negligent, or just clumsy. And I wonder how cops stack up next to that, and prosecutors, and evidence experts….y’know?

    1. Are you really saying that the members of the so-called “justice system” who think getting convictions is more important than ensuring justice and therefore suppress exculpatory evidence, or knowingly use dicey evidence, or misrepresent evidence, or even manufacture evidence, are equivalent to the dipshit teenager at the supermarket who misbagged your groceries?

  20. First: Skinner had ALL this evidence at trial and HE chose not to test it. Second: Skinner has NEVER said how this DNA will exonerate him. He is simply a con on a fishing trip.

    Read for yourself at http://www.hankskinner.com.

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  22. Thank you for this beautiful site and beautiful news

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