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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…

Support for death penalty climbs in Mexico amid murders

The Texas execution of Edgar Tamayo for the murder of a U.S. police officer was heavily criticized by Mexican officials, who say their country rightly banned capital punishment years ago.

But if the Mexican people had their way, the death penalty would be an option for justice for murderers such as Tamayo, say surveys and criminal experts here.

Surveys by polling firms and media outlets in Mexico over the past seven years show that support for the death penalty has been increasing to a point where a majority would like to see it reinstated. Recent polls found between 70% and 80% would like to see the death penalty imposed for crimes such as murder and kidnapping, a rate that is above the majority support for the death penalty in the United States.

The rising support for the death penalty in Mexico comes amid the gruesome kidnappings and mass murders committed by criminals and drug cartels in recent years.

Tamayo's execution made front-page news in Mexico and protests were held in his hometown in Morelos state, just south of Mexico City. The Foreign Ministry said Tamayo was not informed properly of his consular rights and academics and human rights groups questioned why the United States uses a punishment other countries abandoned years ago.

"It's an embarrassment that the United States, which considers itself a modern country, continues applying the death penalty," said Juan Federico Arriola, law professor at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.

Tamayo, 46, was executed by lethal injection Wednesday in the 1994 shooting death of Houston police officer Gary Gaddis.

Gaddis, 24, had been on the Houston police force for 2 years and was driving Tamayo, who was in the country illegally, and another man from a robbery scene when Tamayo shot him 3 times in the head and neck with a pistol he had hidden in his pants. The car crashed and Tamayo fled but was captured a few blocks away, still in handcuffs.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the punishment was proper for such a "despicable" crime, adding that the law is the law.

Some Mexicans say their government seems to have a double standard when it comes to heinous crime: Mexican officials defend citizens convicted of murders abroad, but don't do enough to provide justice or attend to victims of crime back home.

"People are complaining because he's Mexican. There's no other reason," waiter Marco Antonio Rodriguez said of Tamayo.

"People might support (the death penalty) in the case of horrible crimes like rape and kidnap," he said of Mexicans.

Mexico did away the death penalty in 2005 and hasn't executed anyone in more than 50 years. Polls taken a decade ago showed the country split on the issue, with 38% of respondents in a 2004 survey by polling firm Parametria supporting capital punishment, while 42% were opposed.

Support shifted after the country began cracking down on crime and drug cartels in late 2006 and the incidence of murder and kidnapping increased. The National Survey on the Perceptions of Citizen Security released in November 2012 showed 74% of Mexicans backing the death penalty.

Despite the polls, political analysts express some skepticism that the issue would move the masses.

"If it were (popular) someone would be trying to take advantage of it politically," says Aldo Munoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.

One party has done so, however, and successfully.

The Green Party campaigned in 2009 on a platform of bringing back the death penalty for kidnappers. It even hired soap opera stars to spread the message in radio and TV commercials. In that year's midterm elections, the party won more than 7% of the vote - a record showing for the party, which is an ally of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Munoz says the campaign worked due to widespread fear over kidnapping, especially after the 2008 abduction and murder of Fernando Marti, 14, son of the founder of a sporting goods retail empire. His kidnap and the response from authorities prompted a rare protest march from Mexico's middle and upper classes over insecurity.

Opponents of the death penalty, such as Munoz, point to practical problems in bringing it back, including the country's criminal justice system. The system is being overhauled to introduce more transparency, but has a reputation for routinely putting the wrong people in prison - often on flimsy evidence.

Mexico is also a heavily Catholic state, and the church has expressed its opposition to capital punishment.

"Do people actually think the justice system works? ... The police will pick up anybody," says Father Robert Coogan, an American Catholic priest working as chaplain in the city of Saltillo -- 190 miles south of the U.S. border at Laredo, Texas. At Coogan's morning Mass at a Saltillo prison on Thursday, prayers were offered for Tamayo from prisoners who were concerned about the execution.

Coogan also questioned if Mexicans would want to bring back the death penalty given the shortcomings of the system.

"I don't really think Mexicans would accept the death penalty, because they would be putting themselves at risk."

Source: USA Today, January 25, 2014

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