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

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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…

California death sentences rise as U.S. total falls

As the number of death sentences declined nationwide in 2009, death verdicts in California rose to their highest total in nearly a decade, the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday.

All but 5 of the 29 California death sentences last year were handed down in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, the ACLU said.

Only 2 of the death sentences came from Bay Area courts, both in Contra Costa County. Darryl Kemp was sentenced in June for a 1978 rape and murder in Lafayette, a case in which he was identified through DNA evidence in 2000, and Edward Wycoff was condemned in December for murdering his sister and her husband in the couple's El Cerrito home in 2006.

Nationally, death sentences fell to 106 in 2009, their seventh straight year of decline and the lowest total since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to an earlier report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a separate organization.

ACLU leaders attributed the decline to public concerns about wrongful convictions and the high costs of capital punishment.

"All California communities would be better served if California opted for permanent imprisonment as a safe and cost-effective alternative to the death penalty," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.

The group cited a state commission's 2008 report that said capital punishment was costing California $137 million a year. It would cost another $95 million a year to cut appeals times to the national average, the panel said.

The California District Attorneys Association disputed the report's conclusion that abolishing the death penalty would bring major cost savings. The association's executive director, Scott Thorpe, also questioned the ACLU's report Tuesday.

Rather than focusing on one year's statistics, Thorpe said, "you have to look at a number of years to determine what is a trend or an aberration."

He noted that death sentences had averaged fewer than 20 a year statewide in the four years before 2009. He also observed that last year's total was well below the 41 death sentences issued in 1999, the most since California reinstated its death penalty law in 1977.

The ACLU report, based on state records, pointed to one long-term trend, an increase in the number of blacks and Latinos on death row. They accounted for more than 65 % of the death sentences in 2009 and make up more than 58 % of the condemned prisoners in the state, compared with 44 % of the general population, the report said.

California has the largest death row of any state with 701 prisoners, more than 1/5 of the nation's total.

A federal judge halted executions in the state in February 2006 and said California's lethal injection methods were so sloppy and poorly monitored that they could subject a dying inmate to prolonged and excruciating pain. State prison officials are preparing to submit revised procedures to the judge.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2010

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