Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Death penalty drains justice system resources

I served as chief special prosecutor for the state of Montana for 21 years. During that time I was involved with the prosecution of many homicide cases, including five death penalty cases involving homicides committed by prison inmates against other inmates. I also managed the prosecution of 14 inmates for the 1991 prison riot homicides.

I believed at the time that the death penalty was needed to keep correctional officers safe from inmates serving a sentence of life without parole. Without the threat of execution, I thought, there would be no deterrent to prevent such inmates from taking the life of a correctional officer.

But my direct experience prosecuting prison homicides changed my mind. I have come to believe that the death penalty is an incalculable drain on our limited criminal justice resources. It makes bizarre celebrities of the sentenced inmates while essentially ignoring the suffering that victims' families must endure through decades of legal scrutiny. And frankly, it lessens our own humanity. It is time for Montana to repeal it.

I would never advocate for repealing the penalty if I thought it placed our correctional personnel at risk. During the years I prosecuted cases of violence in the prison, I learned to greatly admire and respect the dedicated corrections professionals that care for and manage the inmate population in all of our state and county detention facilities. Theirs is a thankless, stressful responsibility for which they are paid very little, especially given the demands of their jobs. Nonetheless, they continue to labor in the most difficult of environments for Montana's citizens.

But the best way to protect our correctional professionals is to recognize the need for a well-trained staff, for the commitment of adequate resources to operate the institutions safely, and for innovative management incentives that serve to reduce the opportunity for prison violence.

After the 1991 riots in the Montana State Prison's maximum-security unit, prison officials examined their protocols and made many positive changes to heighten security and ensure safety. As a result of those changes, there have been no homicides in the maximum security unit since the riot. The drop in homicides is not because of the death penalty - which existed in Montana both before and after 1991 and did nothing to deter the riots - nor because there are fewer dangerous people in the prison now than there once were. The decrease in homicides is a result of better procedures and other positive changes to the management of the prison.

The truth is that inmates serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole are not the primary threat to corrections officers' safety. Studies have shown that inmates serving life sentences are actually very manageable because they do not want to jeopardize the limited privileges they can earn in the system. A well-managed prison with proper classification and staffing can create incentives for lifers to behave while segregating and punishing those who are a threat before violence ever occurs. Our prison system already knows how to do this.

The reality is that the death penalty is not, and never has been, a deterrent. Prison safety depends on proper staffing, equipment, resources and training. Certainly the money spent on trying to put someone to death for over 20 years could find better use in addressing those practical needs of our correctional system.

by John Connor. J. Connor practices law in Helena

Source: BillingsGazette.com, March 26, 2009

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