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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Colorado Senate committee backs eliminating death penalty


DENVER—A proposal to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado cleared another hurdle at the Capitol on Wednesday.

The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee endorsed the measure (House Bill 1274) in a party-line vote, sending in to another committee for a vote. The bill would take the $1 million now being spent to prosecute death penalty cases and use it to investigate cold cases. That would add seven employees to the state's cold case unit, which currently has only one investigator.

All three Democrats on the committee voted for the measure, and both Republicans voted against it.

Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, acknowledged the death penalty is expensive but said the state should find other ways to fund cold case investigations, such as cutting funding for tourism promotion or prison recreation programs. Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said the state could have spent less on promoting renewable energy instead.

But bill sponsor Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, argued that no other item the state spends its money on has gotten it so little in return. She said the state has spent between $1 million and $4 million a year for about 40 years to prosecute death penalty cases but has executed only one person during that time.

The last execution in Colorado was in 1997, when 53-year-old Gary Lee Davis was put to death for his conviction in a 1986 slaying.

Two men are now on death row in the state, but their sentences wouldn't be affected by the bill.

Two Democrats who voted for the bill—Sen. Betty Boyd of Lakewood and Sen. Bob Bacon—said they backed it because they believe capital punishment is morally wrong, not because of the cold case connection.

"I do not like what capital punishment does to my soul and to the soul of the United States," Bacon said.

Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, said she didn't think the state's money was being well spent on prosecuting death penalty cases. But she also said a comment from a witness about giving criminals time to seek redemption gave her something else to consider.

A group of families of murder victims whose cases remain unsolved are the main force behind the bill, which passed the House by a single vote last week. They lined up to testify in front of the committee, some of them with framed photographs of their slain relatives. Some recounted how their loved ones were killed, offering details about how many times they were stabbed and how their bodies were disposed of.

Howard Morton said his eldest son was killed when he was 18, and it took 12 years to find his body.

"We don't want to hear that we're sorry for your loss. We want action for our murders. We want justice for our loved ones," said Morton, executive director of Families of Missing Homicide Victims and Missing Persons.

The bill has also gained support from national anti-death penalty advocates including Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and Randy Steidl, a former death row inmate from Illinois who was later exonerated.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and all but one of the state's district attorneys oppose the bill, as do the families of other murder victims, including the mothers of Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe. One of the two men on Colorado's death row, Sir Mario Owens, was convicted of masterminding the slaying of the couple as Marshall-Fields was getting ready to testify in a murder trial.

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee. If it passes the Senate, it will be sent to Gov. Bill Ritter, Denver's former district attorney. He hasn't said whether he would sign it.

Source: denverpost.com, April 29, 2009

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