California: With state executions on hold, death penalty foes rethink ballot strategy

California advocates of abolishing the death penalty got a jolt of momentum in March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would not allow any executions to take place while he was in office.
But after trying twice this decade to persuade voters to end capital punishment, they have no plans to go to the ballot again in 2020. Rather than seeking to build on Newsom’s temporary reprieve for Death Row inmates, activists are taking their own pause.
Grappling with the legacy of their two failed initiatives, advocates are reassessing their strategy and retooling their message. Natasha Minsker, a political consultant who has long been involved with abolition efforts, said the governor’s moratorium has given advocates the opportunity to do long-term planning.
“There’s this excitement and energy in our movement that we haven’t had in a long time,” Minsker said.
Newsom’s executive order caught many Californians by surprise. Although he supported the unsuccessful ballot measures to abolish t…

Willingham: So many questions that refuse to go away

Nearly 18 years ago, a long nightmare began for my family. Every time we think the truth is finally coming to light, a new twist reopens old wounds.

In 1991 my stepson, Cameron Todd Willingham, woke up to discover his Corsicana house on fire. The events that followed have been twisted by people with their own agenda. I am speaking out now because it is time for the truth in this case.

The evidence that was used to convict Todd has been discredited by experts and witnesses. Since Todd’s execution in 2004, several independent experts have concluded that the forensic analysis at Todd’s trial was wrong.

Gov. Rick Perry ignored an expert’s report about the evidence and refused to delay Todd’s execution. Five years later, Perry has interfered with the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s investigation of the case. It’s not clear when the commission will resume its work, but our family hopes it happens soon.

Meanwhile, Perry and others — including the man who prosecuted Todd, the defense attorney from Todd’s trial who I think defended him very poorly, and some members of the media in Texas — have focused on Todd’s character. For weeks, my family and I have seen reports about what a "monster" Todd was. The truth is that Todd was sometimes difficult, and his marriage was not always a happy one. That’s not a crime punishable by lethal injection.

When Todd was 13 months old, I married his father and we raised him together. I found a boy who was angry and confused, but also smart and compassionate. I helped that boy grow into a man who did everything he could to provide for his family and fill his children’s lives with love.

Todd loved his children. We all did. I have always believed he was innocent, even before the recent revelations about the evidence that was used against him.

I don’t want to walk through every detail of the evidence, but there are two new arguments from the media and others that I want to address.

First, Todd’s ex-wife reportedly says now that he confessed to her. I don’t believe this is true. More importantly, I don’t understand how anyone can believe what his ex-wife says, given how much her story has changed and how often it has changed. In my eyes, she is simply not credible after so many versions of this story, which makes the evidence — or lack thereof — all the more important.

Second, the fact that Todd didn’t run into a burning home is not proof that he set the fire. He tried to go back into the house and authorities had to restrain him. Even if that weren’t the case, human instinct prevents people from running into fires that will kill them. We may all think we would run into a serious fire to rescue someone, but human nature takes over in the moment.

People are entitled to their opinions about the death penalty. But we don’t execute people for having a bad marriage and a complicated personality.

My family has lost three beautiful little children and their loving father. We want answers. We want to know how the justice system got so badly off-track in Todd’s case, and we want to know how many other families have been devastated by erroneous evidence in arson cases in Texas.

Attacking my son won’t change the troubling lack of evidence in his case, and it won’t answer questions that refuse to go away.

Source: Opinion by Eugenia Willingham, Special to the Star-Telegram, Editorials and Opinions, Oct. 29, 2009. Eugenia Willingham of Ardmore, Okla., is the stepmother of Cameron Todd Willingham.

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