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How Do You Rectify the Ultimate Mistake?
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 • Posted October 28, 2009

Let's be clear at the outset - I am an advocate of the death penalty. I believe that some crimes are so heinous, so evil, that the only punishment that is appropriate is the ending of that life.

Let me also clarify that, though I've served on a number of juries, I've never been asked to make that determination, and I know that it would be difficult to offer up the death penalty if I did not feel absolutely certain it was the right punishment.

Recent events in Texas have also highlighted another problem with the death penalty.... What happens if you put someone to death, then find out you may have been in error?

That is the question that faces Governor Rick Perry. An investigation was scheduled to begin reexamining the evidence in the case by the Texas Forensic Science Board; but, the Governor dismissed the sitting members only days before they were to begin.

Everyone who has examined court transcripts agree that Cameron Todd Willingham had his share of problems. He was not an ideal husband. He was not a great father. To my knowledge, there are no laws in Texas to punish someone for those offenses.

His testimony often contradicted itself. His wife, initially a supporter, became a believer that he had committed the arson that killed their three children. His own defense attorney has stated in interviews that he felt Willingham was guilty, and saw nothing wrong with his defense of his client, though Willingham charged that his representation had been inadequate.

The damning evidence was the arson investigation done at the home. It was performed by a local fire marshall who stated with certainty that the fire had been started with an accelerant and that the burn patterns indicated that Willingham would have been the only one who could have started the fire. No experts were sought out to dispute the fire marshall's testimony, even though he had no formal training in arson investigation.

And now, years later, and five years after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the murder of his three children, fire experts from all over the state and nation have stood up to say a mistake was made.

They have used forensic science to discount the arson allegation, and now point to an electrical fire that was the most likely culprit. An accident.

Governor Perry's office received a report from Willingham's defense counsel prior to the execution date, presenting this new evidence and asking for a stay of execution. The Governor's office failed to act, and Willingham died by lethal injection, as scheduled.

What happens when you kill someone that may have actually been innocent? Do you dismiss the people investigating the case? Do you refer back to the bad behavior of the defendant, outside the specifics of the case? Do you refuse to accept the truth so that you can sleep at night?

Apparently, in Austin, that's exactly what you do.

If a mistake has been made, the family of Cameron Todd Willingham deserves to know that he was innocent. It's too late to rescue his life; but, it's never too late to rescue the truth, whatever that may reveal.

It’s all just my opinion.

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