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…

African countries and the death penalty: A bad relationship they want to, but just can't, give up

Somalia executed three Islamist militants on August 3, 2014.
Even though the last official execution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is known to have taken place in 2003, the country continues to reject recommendations to abolish the death penalty.

This is indicative of trends across Africa which indicate that the continent is slowly turning its back on the death penalty and executions, but it still can't quite let it go. This according to data obtained in the 2014 "Death Sentences and Executions" report by rights group, Amnesty International.

Compared to 2013, there was a total of 46 known executions in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 64 in 2013, representing a drop of 28%. These executions were carried out in just three countries; Equatorial Guinea (9), Somalia (14) and Sudan (23).

There was also a reduction in the number of countries that imposed death sentences - from 19 in 2013, to 18 in 2014. However, there was a sharp increase in the number of death sentences recorded but this can be attributed to mass rulings in Egypt and Nigeria which vastly increased death sentence rates worldwide.

At least 2,466 people are known to have been sentenced to death in 2014 - 1,168 of which are attributed to Egypt (509) and Nigeria (659) alone. In Egypt the report put the high numbers down to death sentences after mass trials that were grossly unfair. These death sentences followed referrals made by the court to the Grand Mufti, Egypt's highest religious official.

In Nigeria most death sentences imposed are for murder and armed robbery. However in 2014 military courts also imposed mass death sentences for mutiny and conspiracy to mutiny.

This despite Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Nigeria is a party, stipulating that "sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes".

Under international human rights standards, "most serious crimes" has been interpreted as being limited to crimes involving intentional killing. Since the charges against all the soldiers failed to meet the threshold of "most serious crimes" the death sentences are in violation of international human rights law.

Not letting go

However, by the end of 2014, even though there were at least 1,484 people under sentence of death, not a single execution was carried out. A trend which can be seen across the continent.

Kenya has an established practice of not carrying out executions although it continues to impose death sentences. No death sentences were imposed in Benin for the 4th year running, the last known executions in Benin were carried out in 1987.

Although there have been no executions since 1998, in Sierra Leone the death penalty is still retained for treason and aggravated robbery and is mandatory for murder.

In Malawi, even though the death penalty is applicable for certain crimes, the last known execution was carried out in 1992 and the country still won't consider abolition.

Death sentences were also not carried out in the Republic of Congo or in Ghana and though both countries have accepted recommendations to look into changes and abolishment of the death sentence, neither one implemented any. In Ghana however, President John Mahama commuted 21 death sentences to life imprisonment in commemoration of Ghana's 54th Republic Day Anniversary.

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, according to government information no executions were carried out in 2014, despite 95 people being on death row. In fact, four people had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment and one person was exonerated.

Though it is certainly carried out in places, the death sentence has an almost ceremonial role - making a point when it is most needed, which is perhaps the reason why so many countries can't let it go.

After all, the power to wield the rule of law, along with people's lives, as a propaganda tool is perhaps the most useful when it comes to keep the citizenry in check - and, considering Nigeria's case of mutinying soldiers whilst fighting one of the country's greatest battles against the Islamist militants, Boko Haram - a government never knows when it might be needed.

Source: mgafrica.com, April 6, 2015

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