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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…

The Other Iranian Execution Stories

Public execution in Iran
Public execution in Iran
Two stories about hangings in Iran have garnered some public attention in the past two weeks. In one story a convicted drug felon named Alireza M. was hanged and somehow managed to survive. In the other, perhaps 18 men were executed in response to a deadly attack on Iranian border guards.

These stories emerge after an apparent thaw in U.S.-Iran diplomatic relations, taken by some as a sign that Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly-elected president, will usher in a period of openness and political change.

In early October, however, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that over 125 people have been executed since Rouhani came into office on August 3.

In 2012, Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort and Iran Human Rights claim that at least 580 people were executed in Iran—294 of these executions were reported by the government and 286 from “unofficial sources.” While China leads the world in number of executions, Iran leads in number of juveniles executed setting the bar at puberty—age fifteen for boys and nine for girls.

After the 1979 Revolution there were thousands of politically motivated executions. Now, though, executions are mostly for “moral” violations like drug possession, sodomy, adultery, or apostasy. In 2012, the majority of executions were for drug-related charges.

Many executions are public and well-publicized beforehand. Some are televised and many more are recorded on cellphones by attendees and uploaded to Youtube and other social media sites. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur to Iran reports that there were at least 58 public executions in 2012.

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, is worried that public executions will “desensitize the public and prepare them for further acts of official violence. It also makes violence a formal element of public policy.”

Ghaemi notes that officials often target the poor who can’t buy their way out of the system. “They think they can use capital punishment to fight the drug problem, but there’s been no indication that it has worked—the drug problem continues to grow. It’s a war on poor people, ethnic minorities. These people are being targeted and sacrificed.”

The two Iranian execution stories in the media as of late underscore Ghaemi’s assertions.  Alireza M. was a convicted drug trafficker and of the men executed last week, according to Ghaemi, 16 were from the Balouchi minority and the other 2 were Kurdish political prisoners.

The Iranian judiciary claims that the men had already been tried and sentenced to death. “But the timing and insistence on implementing these executions is very worrisome. These executions were clearly an impulsive act of revenge.”

Hadi Gahemi is worried. “I expect execution numbers continue to rise as Rouhani engages in foreign policy initiatives. It appears the supreme leader is giving hardliners a free hand to carry out executions to mollify their opposition to foreign policy overtures.”

The Iranian government announced that it will spare the life of Alireza M., Iran Human Rights reports that several more Kurdish political prisoners are in danger of execution.



- OpEd by Jack Shuler, October 2013. Jack Shuler is John and Christine Warner professor and associate professor of English at Denison University. His book The Noose: A Knotted History (PublicAffairs, 2014) explores the history of the hangman’s knot from the Iron Age to contemporary Iran. He also wrote Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town (University of South Carolina Press, 2012) and Calling Out Liberty (Mississippi University Press, 2009). Shuler is working on a project exploring lethal injection in the context of global economic and human rights concerns.

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