Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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…

Louisiana: Prosecutor apologizes for his role in sending innocent man to death row

This photo of Glenn Ford was taken by his lawyer on March 11, 2014— Ford's first day of freedom after 30 years in prison
This photo of Glenn Ford was taken by his lawyer
on March 11, 2014— Ford's first day of freedom after
30 years in prison—near St. Francisville, LA (Gary Clements)
In a letter published Friday in the Shreveport Times, he pleads for compensation for the man exonerated last year but battling cancer.

Marty Stroud was 33 years old when he fought to have Glenn Ford sentenced to death. Stroud was relatively new in his role as assistant district attorney in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, when Ford was indicted on a charge of 1st-degree murder for the 1983 killing of a watchmaker who ran a jewelry store in Shreveport.

"The case took about a week and a half," Stroud recalls now. Ford, a black man before an all-white jury, was convicted and sentenced in 1984. He remained on death row for three decades. It was the 1st and only death sentence Stroud won as a prosecutor.

A.M. "Marty" Stroud III of Shreveport, La., wrote a letter of apology, published Friday by the Shreveport Times, for his role in sending Glenn Ford, who has been exonerated, to death row for 30 years.

Last year, Ford was declared a free man and released from prison. His attorneys said upon his release he was sentenced because of questionable testimony as well as inexperienced defense. The lawyers he had during his initial trial had not tried a case before a jury before, Stroud said.

Other men had also initially been charged in the shooting of Isadore Rozeman, the watchmaker, but those charges were later dismissed.

In 2013, Ford's attorneys say they were told that a confidential informant for the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office pointed to one of those other men as the person who killed Rozeman, though precise details remain unclear.

In March 2014, after prosecutors and Ford's attorneys filed motions to vacate his conviction, the state district court ordered his release. However, more than a year later, Ford is still fighting the state for compensation. He's also facing an advanced cancer diagnosis.

Stroud knows all of this. He says he knows now that Ford was innocent and he knows Ford's trial "was fundamentally unfair."

He knows Ford is dying, and he knows the state is not paying Ford for the decades he lost.

"When he was exonerated last year, I was thrilled," Stroud, 63, said in a telephone interview Friday. "I thought that justice had been done."


A.M. "Marty" Stroud III, who grew up in Shreveport and is an attorney there, read about Ford's problems getting the state to pay him in the Shreveport Times.

Marty Stroud
Former prosecutor Marty Stroud III: 'Full of myself'
Stroud could not believe it, so he began working on a letter to the editor of the newspaper to try to put his thoughts together.

All of the things that had bothered him about the case, and all of the things about the case that had built up in him over the sleepless nights, poured out into the letter.

"I'm not one to write letters or get on soapboxes or anything like that," Stroud said. "But I felt that in this particular case, I had a unique view of what had happened, since I actually was there and had watched the progress through the system all these years."

The result, which totals more than 1,500 words, was published online Friday by the Shreveport Times and widely circulated on social media. In the bracing letter, Stroud apologized for his role in taking away 30 years of Ford's life. He says he was "arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself."

Stroud explained why he had turned against the death penalty he so eagerly sought in 1984, and he expressed both his remorse for what he did and his apology to Ford for what cannot be undone.

"I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning," he wrote.

He recalled that late in the trial, while arguing for the death sentence, he mocked Ford for wanting to stay alive to try to prove his innocence, adding: "I continued by saying this should be an affront to each of you jurors, for he showed no remorse, only contempt for your verdict."

Stroud continued: "How totally wrong was I."

He went on to work for a private firm after leaving the District Attorney's Office in 1989.

Stroud has worked on a mix of civil and criminal cases, including mounting defenses in death-penalty cases.


"I have a stain because I participated in the proceeding that, looking back on, it was fundamentally unfair," Stroud said in the phone interview. He said he knew that Ford's attorneys had not practiced criminal law and that he knew "it was a mismatch from the beginning."

Stroud also began seeing problems with a larger issue in the proceedings: The fact that Ford was not just found guilty, but found guilty and sentenced to death, which means he could have been executed before his innocence came to light.

The letter from Stroud comes as prosecutors around the country are putting increasing resources into trying to overturn false convictions.

The country had a record number of exonerations last year, a tally boosted by the efforts of prosecutors, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Mistaken convictions are a particular concern when they involve death sentences. 6 of the people exonerated last year had been sentenced to death, the registry said.

Wrongly executing someone is "the ultimate nightmare," Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said recently. But Holder, who opposes the death penalty, called this an "inevitable" feature of the current capital punishment system, which relies on the judgment of people who can make mistakes.

Ford was the 144th death row inmate cleared since 1973, and he had spent more time on death row than any of these other inmates, the Death Penalty Information Center reported.

Stroud's unease with the death penalty has grown and deepened over the years, and he says Ford's case illustrates why he now opposes capital punishment.

He said after being on both sides of the issue, he has determined that it does not work.

"All it is is state-assisted revenge," he said, adding: "We can't do it. It's arbitrary, it's capricious. And I believe that it's barbaric."

Stroud was confident in his case in 1984, but he wishes now he had done more to look into the rumors that other people were involved in the crime.

In hindsight, he realizes he was an eager prosecutor less than a decade out of law school, one who wanted to make a name for himself.


In Louisiana, the wrongfully imprisoned can receive up to $250,000 in compensation. Ford is trying to get the state to pay him for the years spent in prison, but court documents show that the state says he should not be given money because he went to a pawn shop to sell items that had been stolen from Rozeman's store. Attorneys for Ford said last year that one of the other men initially charged in the killing had given him jewelry to pawn.

Ford has also filed lawsuits claiming he was wrongfully imprisoned and that he was denied necessary medical care after signs emerged he may have cancer.

Within months of his release from the notorious Angola Prison last year, Ford was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer; he currently has stage 4 lung cancer, according to legal filings submitted in federal court this month.

In his letter, Stroud calls for Ford to be given "every penny" called for by Louisiana's law governing compensation for the wrongfully convicted. He also says he hopes for compassion he does not believe he has earned.

"I end with the hope that Providence will have more mercy for me than I showed Glenn Ford," he wrote. "But I am also sobered by the realization that I certainly am not deserving of it."

Source: Press Herald, March 22, 2015

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