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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…

Catholic activism on the death penalty; a brief dispatch from Denmark

Public execution in Iran
Rumors of the death of the church's passion for social justice have been greatly exaggerated, at least to judge by a high-profile international conference in Rome on Tuesday promoting global abolition of the death penalty, which was organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio.

The conference was titled, "A World without the Death Penalty: No Justice without Life."

[T]he conference confirmed that the death penalty is hardly on the brink of becoming obsolete. Among the salient data:
  • 58 nations still have the death penalty on the books, though the number in which executions are actually carried out is smaller. In 2011, executions were performed in 20 nations.
  • In 2011, there were an estimated 5,000 people executed around the world, of whom roughly 4,000 were put to death in China.
  • Four nations in 2011 and early 2012 returned to using the death penalty, bucking the abolitionist trend: Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, Botswana and Japan.
  • In 2011, 1,923 death sentences were handed down in 63 nations.
  • Also in 2011, there were at least 18,750 persons on death row, an estimate experts stressed is conservative, given that only a few nations release complete data on whom they have in jail, and in countries such as Belarus, China, Mongolia and Vietnam, death sentences are actually considered state secrets.
  • The United States was in fifth place worldwide in 2011 in the number of people it put to death, with 43. The U.S. trailed China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. (As a footnote, that was the third-lowest annual total of executions in America in the last 17 years.) At the moment, 3,189 people are on America's death rows.

Of particular concern, according to participants, is the application of the death penalty to minors (as in Iran) and in cases of mental illness or mental disability (including in the United States). Participants also flagged pressure in some countries to expand use of the death penalty to combat drug trafficking, terrorism and even homosexuality. (In 2011, Liberia and Uganda both launched efforts to impose the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.)

Laurence Argimon-Pistre spoke on behalf of the European Union, saying it intends to spend about $15 million next year on lobbying efforts against the death penalty. As preliminary steps toward total abolition, Argimon-Pistre laid out five priorities:
  • Legal assistance to prisoners awaiting execution, to ensure they get a fair trial
  • Promoting legal and constitutional reform in states that still use the death penalty -- for instance, making sure the right of appeal is upheld
  • Monitoring detention conditions and the treatment of prisoners on death row
  • Studies and reports on "miscarriages of justice" and abuse of the legal system
  • Restricting the trade of goods and technical assistance necessary to carry out capital punishment -- for instance, Pistre said, tightening up the sale of "new generation medicines used for lethal injection".

Source: National Catholic Reporter, November 30, 2012

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