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…

South Carolina: Call for death penalty in shooting, but state lacks the drug

Dylann Storm briefly appeared before a judge on June 20, 2015
Dylann Storm briefly appeared before a judge on June 20, 2015
2 days after the shooting deaths of 9 people during a Bible study at a Charleston church, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley made a bold public statement: The gunman "absolutely" should be put to death. But her state, though largely pro-death penalty, can't secure 1 of the drugs needed for lethal injections and hasn't executed an inmate since 2011.

Any potential execution order for Dylann Storm Roof, 21, would be years away. He is charged with 9 counts of murder in Wednesday's massacre. He appeared briefly before a judge Friday, and his next court appearance isn't until October. Haley made her comments Friday on NBC's "Today" show, but the governor has no power in Roof's prosecution or sentencing.

South Carolina's supply of pentobarbital, 1 of 3 drugs in the state's lethal injection, expired in 2013. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling has made it clear to legislators that his agency can't buy anymore, even as 44 people are on death row in the state. All attempts to purchase more have failed - a problem in states nationwide. Some are trying to find new drugs and new sources for drugs because pharmaceutical companies have stopped selling them for executions and pharmacists are reluctant to expose themselves to possible harassment.

Stirling advocated this year for a bill that would keep secret the information of any company or pharmacist providing execution drugs, saying that should help secure them. But bills have stalled in both chambers, and opponents urged legislators not to vote for government secrecy.

The Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of Oklahoma's 3-drug injection, with inmates arguing it doesn't reliably produce unconsciousness and causes pain and suffering. State House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, a Republican, has said he will probably wait for that decision before asking lawmakers to vote on the bill, though Stirling notes that South Carolina uses a different drug.

Still, Delleney said, "I don't see any urgency to get ahead of the Supreme Court."

Even with the dozens of inmates on South Carolina's death row, the next execution is probably 5 years away, according to Emily Paavola, executive director of South Carolina's Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center, which believes South Carolina's death penalty is fraught with problems and advocates for reform. Paavola has said the only way that would speed up is if an inmate who's sentenced to die waives all appeals - an unlikely scenario.

Death row inmates can choose electrocution, but if a prisoner doesn't want to die that way, the prisons agency could not carry out an execution order without the necessary drugs for a lethal injection, Stirling said.

Since lethal injection became an option in 1995, only 3 of 39 people executed have died by electrocution.

After the bills on drugmaker secrecy stalled, Rep. Joshua Putnam, a Republican, introduced a proposal that would add death by a 5-member firing squad to the state's list of approved execution methods. Putnam said while there are cases in which lethal injection drugs didn't work properly and caused pain, "we do know by firing squad you don't feel anything."

But Rep. Joe Neal said that makes little sense.

"I can't think of a more hideous spectacle than gunning down someone," said Neal, a Democrat. "Whether people suffer or not depends on the aim of an unknown marksman."

Putnam's measure also would allow for execution by electrocution if the state doesn't have the lethal injection drugs. Last month, Rep. Mike Pitts, a Republican and retired police officer, introduced a bill that's more straightforward. It would eliminate all references to a lethal injection option, leaving electrocution as the only method.

No action has occurred on either bill. But they can be taken up when the second of a 2-year legislative session resumes in January.

Source: Associated Press, June 20, 2015

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