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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…

Oklahoma executes Gary Roland Welch

An Oklahoma inmate who recently attempted suicide was put to death Thursday evening for killing a man during a knife fight nearly 2 decades ago, marking the nation's 1st execution this year.

Gary Roland Welch, 49, was given a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in McAlester for fatally stabbing 35-year-old Robert Hardcastle in Miami, Okla. He was pronounced dead at 6:10 p.m.

Welch's execution came nearly three weeks after he tried to kill himself by slitting his throat with a smuggled shaving razor. Prison officials and Welch's own court-appointed attorney insisted he was sane and understood his fate.

Welch maintained that he only killed Hardcastle in self-defense.

He remained defiant at a hearing last month before the state Pardon and Parole Board, telling the board he wasn't "here today crying, begging or sniveling for my life."

"I did what I had to do," Welch told the panel. "I didn't intend to kill him, but I certainly didn't intend for him to kill me, either." The board voted 3-2 to deny clemency.

After Welch's suicide attempt on Dec. 16, prison guards rushed him to a hospital where he was treated before being returned to death row. He was evaluated by a psychiatric unit based at the prison and deemed competent to be executed because he was aware of what was going to happen to him and why — the standard required for death row inmates in Oklahoma.

Nothing in Welch's court record indicated that the issue of his sanity or mental capacity was ever raised, and prosecutors presented evidence at the pardon and parole hearing suggesting that Welch was a bully in prison who enjoyed watching violent movies, pushed around other inmates and was once caught with a homemade knife in his cell.

The question of Welch's mental state was addressed this week by his court-appointed attorney, Robert Wyatt, who insisted his client knew what he was doing and added that the suicide attempt could have been influenced by Welch's belief that he "never got a fair shake" because he was given the death penalty for murder instead of a lesser charge, such as manslaughter.

"He always felt the system was against him, and as a result of that, that influences how a person reacts," Wyatt said this week. "(Welch) said openly at the pardon and parole hearing, that during his stay at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, he's always been treated fairly."

According to court records, several witnesses testified they saw Welch and a co-defendant, Claudie Conover, beating and stabbing Hardcastle outside of Hardcastle's Miami home on Aug. 25, 1994. Conover also was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later reduced to life without parole. He died in prison from natural causes in 2001.

Ben Loring, the lead prosecutor in the case, recalled Welch's self-defense argument as flimsy.

"The problem was, nothing matched up," Loring told The Associated Press this week. "None of the physical evidence matched up to what he was saying."

Loring said Welch had "ample opportunity" to stop the assault but continued with the beating. At one point, Loring recalled, Conover ended up with the knife and was walking to the car with it. That's when Welch got a broken beer bottle and continued slashing Hardcastle, he said.

"It just went way too far,' Loring said. "I'm not a big proponent of the death penalty, but if anybody deserved it, I felt the case (for a death sentence) should have been presented to a jury."

Welch's suicide attempt marked the second time in nearly 20 years that an Oklahoma death row inmate tried to kill himself rather than face a state execution.

Hours before condemned killer Robert Brecheen's execution in 1995, he attempted to overdose on sedatives and anti-anxiety pills he had hoarded in his cell. He was rushed to a hospital, had his stomach pumped and was returned to the death chamber, where he was executed hours later.

Welch becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Oklahoma and the 97th overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1990. It marks the 2nd consecutive year that the initial execution in the USA occurred in Oklahoma; last year Billy Alverson was put to death on Jan. 6 and was followed by the execution 5 days later of Jeffrey Matthews. Oklahoma has carried out more executions than any state except Texas (477) and Virginia (109) since the death penalty was re-legalized on July 2, 1976.

Welch becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year and the 1278th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Sources: Associated Press & Rick Halperin, January 5, 2012

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