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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…

How India hanged a poor watchman whose guilt was far from established

Although bearing a Brahmin name, Dhananjoy Chatterjee was far from being a member of the Kolkata bhadralok, or intellectual elite. He was an impoverished guard in a building where an 18-year-old named Hetal Parekh was found dead in March 1990. He was convicted of having raped and killed her and was hanged on his 39th birthday, August 14, 2004, protesting his innocence until the end.

His execution followed a shrill campaign waged by the wife of the then West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Chatterjee’s appeals were rejected by the then president APJ Abdul Kalam on the advice of arguably India’s worst home minister, Shivraj Patil, going by historian Ramachandra Guha’s estimation.

Recently, Abdul Kalam has been in the news saying he favours abolition of the death penalty. Had he applied his mind to the file put before him 11 years ago, it would have helped save the life of a man who was in all likelihood innocent.

As for Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s execution, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a four-decades-old New Delhi-based volunteer outfit, put out a statement earlier this month based on an analysis by two scholars from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, arguing that the guard was framed.

The analysis by Debashish Sengupta and Prabal Chaudhury, timed to coincide with the Law Commission’s Public Hearing on the death penalty in New Delhi on Saturday, July 11, described what they believe was a botched investigation. They also highlighted inconsistencies in the evidence and pointed to fictitious claims, all aimed, they say, to frame Chatterjee.

The two scholars noted that a police witness in court denied having seen Chatterjee at the victim’s flat. The police seizure list was signed by someone who supplied tea to the police and did not turn up in court. The antecedents of some items presented as incriminating evidence, such as a necklace and a watch, were never checked. The trial court failed to question why no murder weapon was recovered and why there was no blood on Chatterjee’s clothes even though there were 21 stab wounds on the victim’s body.

While the crime was said to have been committed in a short window between 5:20 pm and 5:50 pm, when Hetal Parekh’s mother was out of the flat, there was a three-hour delay before the police were called – ample time for tampering with the evidence. The Parekh family members’ statements were inconsistent, and the family soon wrapped up its thriving jewellery business and left Kolkata, raising the possibility of an honour killing, the scholars contend. A letter written by the victim’s father alleging that Chatterjee used to harass his daughter, which was used by the police to establish a motive, seems to have been written after the crime, the scholars say.

Chatterjee had spent 14 years in jail before he was hanged. He was thus punished twice for a crime he likely did not commit, going by the Kolkata scholars’ analysis, for the mere fault of being too poor to engage a competent lawyer.


Source: scroll.in, N Jayaram, July 21, 2015

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