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…

Former Florida Warden Haunted by Botched Execution

During my tenure as Warden at Florida State Prison it was my duty to oversee the executions of three men: John Earl Bush, John Mills Jr. and Pedro Medina. Remembering every gruesome detail of their deaths is haunting.

The flames that consumed Pedro Medina's head when the execution went seriously awry, the smoke, the putrid odor, and his death by inferno is deeply embedded in my brain.The memory of telling the executioner to continue with the killing, despite the malfunctioning electric chair, and being at a point of no-return, plagues me still.

When I became warden I learned that it was tradition for the "death team" to go out for breakfast the morning after an execution. On the early morning after John Bush's execution the 'traditional breakfast' was held 15 miles south of the death chamber at a Shoney's in Starke, Florida. This was my first execution and I felt that tradition was important and moreover, the well being of the 'team' was my responsibility. In this small town of 5,000 most everyone works at the prison, is retired from the prison or has a family member in the business. Everyone in the restaurant knew who we were and what we had just done... there were even a few 'high five signs.' While stirring my scrambbled eggs into hot grits, I began to realize the full import of the spectacle around us. Looking across the room, I could see the female attorney who had represented Bush. I saw my own sickness on her sad face and decided that breakfast after executions just didn't fit. It was my first and my last traditional death breakfast. It simply appeared celebratory from too many angles.

Minutes before an execution it's the warden's responsibility to sit with the prisoner and read the death warrant aloud after explaining that it is a state law requirement. I asked the condemned men if there was anything that could be done for them or if there was anyone I could call or if they had something very personal and confidential they'd like me to pass on...following of course, their imminent death. While I shall never share any of the words passed to me during those quiet moments it can be said that the whispers were sincere and promises were kept.

Searching my soul for answers that would satisfy the question on just why were we killing people and why our governor and politicians would do their 'chest pounding' over these ghastly spectacles was difficult. I began to remember myself as the person who went to Florida State Prison with a firm belief in the death penalty. And even though I still professed this belief, the questions of why we were doing this and if it were necessary, would not leave my mind. While appalled by the physical act of tying a person to a chair and burning him to death, I did not deny the reasons for the act.

Here I want to say that one must be careful in searching his soul…one may just find that God is there and that He does not support the barbaric idea that man should execute man.

During the renewal of my faith and my conversion to the Catholic Church, I was asked to speak out about my feelings on the death penalty.

After twenty-three years in Corrections, I have come to the conclusion that killing people is wrong. We have no business doing it, except in self-defense, in defense of someone else or in defense of the nation. And it's wrong for us to ask others do it for us. Looking back I wish I had never been involved in carrying out the death penalty. We have an alternative that doesn't lower us to the level of the killer: permanent imprisonment. It is cheaper, keeps society safe and offers swift justice to the victims.

I have found that my experience and notoriety as a warden who carried out executions provides a good platform to reach the public. I say to the many groups I've spoken to in the past few years that I'll 'tell my story to anyone who'll stand in front of me long enough to hear it.'

Ron McAndrew (pictured) is a 22-year veteran with the Florida Department of Corrections. He also served as Director of the Orange County Jail in Florida for one year. For the last three years he has worked as a prison and jail consultant, and as an expert witness He is a member of Saint John the Baptist Catholic Community in Dunnellon, Florida. To learn more about McAndrew's journey, visit: www.RonMcAndrew.com

Source: Death Penalty Focus, March 28, 2009

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