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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…

The Death Penalty Deserves the Death Penalty

Since 1976, when it reinstated capital punishment, the [United States Supreme] Court has tried to improve the odds that states will carry it out fairly and justly by establishing a series of rules, or constitutional regulations, intended to limit the use of the death sentence to instances where the punishment fits both the crime and the criminal.

Since 2002, offenders with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation) cannot be put to death, because of, among other things, their “diminished capacities to understand and process information.” Since 2005, juvenile offenders cannot be executed because of their “underdeveloped sense of responsibility.” Since 2008, murder is the only crime for which a convicted offender can be put to death, and not just any murder. To warrant a death sentence, an offender must have displayed what the Court called “extreme culpability” with “a consciousness materially more depraved” than that of a typical murderer—for example, by brutally killing more than one victim.

But some of the rules have not solved the problems they were meant to. They increase the arbitrariness and unfairness of who gets sentenced to death. In addressing the widespread problem of ineffective counsel for people charged with murder who might get a death sentence, for example, the Court set the bar so low that it has allowed courts to tolerate what one federal judge called “abysmal lawyering” in capital cases. In many instances, lawyers were drunk or fell asleep during trials in which their clients were convicted and sentenced to death.

The discredit is profound when someone sentenced to death is later exonerated, as has happened a hundred and fifty-two times in the past forty-two years. But it is indelible when a state executes someone who should never have been sentenced to death under the current rules. As Robert J. Smith, Sophie Cull, and Zoë Robinson documented in a report published last year, eighty-seven of the hundred people executed in the United States between the middle of 2011 and the middle of 2013 had one or more traits that a court is supposed to regard as reducing blameworthiness. Fifty-four had been diagnosed with or showed symptoms of an acute mental illness that disrupted their thinking and diminished their ability to cope. Fifty had suffered a serious childhood trauma, like chronic homelessness or sexual molestation. Thirty-two had intellectual impairments, like a traumatic brain injury or a significant cognitive deficit. The authors of the report speculated that failures on the part of the defense lawyers kept juries from learning about mitigating traits and taking account of them, as the law required them to.

That is what happened, basically, in the case of Jeffrey Landrigan. The Arizona judge who presided over the trial—and, under the state’s rules at the time, decided on his punishment—later submitted an affidavit on his behalf to the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency. She said that, if she had known about mitigating factors that his lawyers never presented, like his organic brain damage and the impact of fetal alcohol syndrome on his behavior, she would not have sentenced him to death.


Source: The New Yorker,  Lincoln Caplan, April 15, 2015. Mr. Caplan, a former New Yorker staff writer, is a senior research scholar at Yale Law School and the author of five books about the law.
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