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…

U.S. Supreme Court overturns death sentence of Billy Joe Magwood

June 24, 2010: The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Billy Joe Magwood, ruling that Magwood can argue that Alabama retroactively changed its laws to make his crime qualify for the death penalty.

Magwood, 59, black, was convicted for the murder of then 51-year-old Sheriff C.F. “Neil” Grantham, whom Magwood targeted after he served time on drug charges. Magwood became convinced that Grantham jailed him without cause and vowed revenge.

On the morning of March 1, 1979, he parked outside the jail and waited for the sheriff to arrive. When Grantham got out of his car, Magwood shot him and fled the scene.

Magwood was sentenced to death June 2, 1981. The conviction and death sentence were upheld by the state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1985, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama also upheld the conviction, but required a new sentencing hearing for the consideration of additional mitigating circumstances.

Magwood was again sentenced to death in 1986 and the sentence upheld by the state appeals court.

Another appeal begun in 1997 before the U.S. District Court eventually resulted in Magwood's sentence being vacated on April 9, 2007. Judge Myron Thompson ruled that Magwood’s death sentence violated due process and had to be overturned.

Thompson contended that at the time Magwood murdered Grantham, the highest penalty applicable for the crime was life without parole. He also ruled that Magwood’s death sentence had to be vacated because of the ineffectiveness of counsel.

On Jan. 23, 2009 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned judge Thompson’s decision, and reinstated the death sentence for Magwood.

Today the Supreme Court agreed with judge Thompson, and reinstated his decision.

Sources: Courthouse News, Project Hope, Hands Off Cain, June 24, 2010

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