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October 4, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
On February 17,2009 Texas executed an innocent man. Cameron Todd Willingham’s last words were: “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I didn’t do.”

Texas authorities, Judges and Governor Rick Perry, dismissed Willingham’s protests as usual fare from an angry, embittered and guilty man despite being convicted on arson theories that have been repudiated by scientific advances. One expert after another has said the evidence used to convict Willingham for killing his three daughters in a house fire was flawed and that the fire was accidental. Lawyers for Willingham tried desperately to persuade Governor Perry to grant a stay of execution, but the Governor ignored their request and Willingham was executed.

According to the Houston Chronicle Willingham was not the only innocent to be executed in recent history. In November 2005 the Chronicle told of the execution of Ruben Cantu who was found guilty and condemned to death for a crime that occurred when he was seventeen. On August 24,1993 Ruben Cantu was executed on the testimony of a teenager, an illegal immigrant at the time, who later recanted his testimony.

Other states, 34 to be exact, allow executions but it is applied more often in southern and western states. Since capital punishment was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1976 states with the most executions include Virginia with 103 and Oklahoma with 91 but none can compare in numbers with Texas. Since executions were reinstated Texas has killed 441 people, 18 so far in 2009 have been put to death.

Texas has adopted a cold, if not heartless attitude toward state sponsored killing; an attitude more extreme than the old west that is often emulated by Texas prosecutors and judges. Governor George Bush signed 158 death warrants, more than in any governor in history, including the execution of Terry Washington a 33 year old man with the mind of a seven year old child. He also signed the first death warrant for a woman, Karla Faye Tucker the first woman since 1863 to be executed in Texas. Tucker’s execution was carried out despite protests from such pro-death penalty advocates as television evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Innocent people, people not guilty of any crime have been executed. Only those pathetically lacking mental vitality believes otherwise. Capital punishment has been discredited as an effective deterrent and serves no useful purpose in our society. The Innocence Project reports that since 1973 one hundred thirty-five people have been exonerated and released from death rows in 26 states. A Columbia University Study found that more than two-thirds of death penalty sentences appealed from 1973 to 1995 were overturned by higher courts because the way the cases were investigated or tried.

No less a luminary than Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has questioned the death penalty. In a speech before the Minnesota Women Lawyers group in July 2001 the Judge told her audience “The system may well be allowing innocent defendants to be executed.” Despite irrefutable evidence of wrongful convictions the death penalty remains popular with a majority of Americans.

There is little dispute among experts that our justice system is broken. One of the leading causes of all wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification. Research has concluded that faulty eyewitness testimony accounts for more wrongful convictions than all other causes combined. In some cases innocent individuals were misidentified by more than one eyewitness. Despite a growing number of wrongfully convicted individuals set free attitudes toward the death penalty have remained virtually unchanged for more than two decades. Bill Ayers, yes the same Bill Ayers reintroduced to America during the last Presidential campaign, was one of about 40 protestors that showed up in May 1994 for a candle light vigil outside the execution of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Ayers claimed recently on C-SPAN that he was the only one protesting against the death penalty.

Elected officials are fond of saying Social Security is the “third rail,” the suicidal rail of American politics, but if that is the case the death penalty must be the lightning rod on top of the Empire State Building. Politicians try to avoid discussing the death penalty unless they are in favor and then they pile on. The image of Governor Michael Dukakis trying to explain why he would not favor the death penalty even if his wife were brutally murdered remains etched in the minds of all presidential candidates, especially Democrats. However, elected officials, particularly at the Federal level must take the lead in reforming our justice system.

Meanwhile back to the Governor of Texas. The Governor, embroiled in a hot election campaign has replaced the Chairman and two members of the state’s Forensic Science Commission just two days before the commission was to hear a report that concluded Texas has executed an innocent man on Governor Perry’s watch. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project likened the Governor’s actions to Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre when he fired Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the Watergate Tapes.

Where is the outrage?


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Willingham Family, four members now tragically dead.