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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…

Clemency Denied, Kelly Gissendaner Nears Execution in Georgia

Kelly Gissendaner
Kelly Gissendaner
ATLANTA — Georgia is poised to execute on Tuesday the only woman on its death row, hours after the state Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected her latest plea for clemency and nearly seven months after her execution was postponed because a drug used in the lethal injection had become “cloudy.”

The inmate, Kelly Renee Gissendaner, who was convicted of orchestrating her husband’s 1997 murder, is scheduled for execution Tuesday night at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, southeast of Atlanta.

Although Ms. Gissendaner’s lawyers have asked the federal courts to intercede, Tuesday’s decision by the five-member state board was a significant setback for a condemned inmate who drew wide attention for her spiritual development during her incarceration. The panel, which in February rejected a plea for mercy for Ms. Gissendaner, denied her latest request for clemency after it convened here in a closed session.

Ms. Gissendaner’s guilt in the death of her husband, Douglas, was uncontested, but her lawyers cited her “sincere remorse and acceptance of responsibility” in a filing this month to the board. Her supporters argue, in part, that her “good works in prison” justifies a stay and, ultimately, a commutation of her sentence to life imprisonment.

State officials and some members of Mr. Gissendaner’s family have said that her death sentence is appropriate.

“As the murderer, she’s been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug who, again, is the victim here,” Mr. Gissendaner’s family said in a statement released by the district attorney’s office in Gwinnett County, where the murder took place. “She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take.”

Ms. Gissendaner’s lawyers also argued that her sentence was inappropriately severe because she was not present for her husband’s murder and because Georgia has not executed a “non-trigger person” since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

That contention has drawn the endorsement of Norman S. Fletcher, a former Georgia Supreme Court chief justice, who said he “was wrong” when joined in a ruling while on the bench that went against Ms. Gissendaner.

On Monday, Mr. Gissendaner’s family noted Ms. Gissendaner’s lengthy experience with the legal process, as well as their own.

“Kelly chose to have her day in court and after hearing the facts of this case, a jury of her peers sentenced her to death,” the family said in its statement. “In the last 18 years, our mission has been to seek justice for Doug’s murder and to keep his memory alive. We have faith in our legal system and do believe that Kelly has been afforded every right that our legal system affords.”

Through a Vatican representative, Pope Francis urged Georgia officials to grant clemency on Tuesday, less than a week after he stood before Congress and called for the abolition of the death penalty.

“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been presented to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in a letter on behalf of Francis.

The state board’s decision means that Ms. Gissendaner and her lawyers have few options remaining to stop her execution. In recent months, Ms. Gissendaner’s legal argument has partly focused on whether her postponed execution on March 2 amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Then, after an earlier execution date had been set aside because of inclement weather, Georgia’s corrections commissioner canceled Ms. Gissendaner’s execution because of concerns about the state’s supply of pentobarbital, which it uses for lethal injections.

Georgia officials suspended executions amid a review of the state’s procedures, and they later said that the pentobarbital, obtained from a compounding pharmacy, had not been contaminated. Instead, they said it had precipitated, most likely because the drug was “shipped and stored at a temperature which was too low.”

A University of Georgia pharmaceuticals expert who assisted the state in its investigation also said that the cloudy appearance of the pentobarbital could have been linked to the process by which the drug was prepared.

After the postponed execution, Ms. Gissendaner’s lawyers argued that bumbling and fickle state officials had essentially forced Ms. Gissendaner to face “hours of unconstitutional torment and uncertainty — to which she had not been sentenced — while defendants dithered about whether they could execute her.”

That argument has so far failed. On Monday, Chief Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. of Federal District Court said he would not intervene because Ms. Gissendaner had not proved that the state’s conduct was “deliberately indifferent” to her mental state.

Ms. Gissendaner’s lawyers have appealed.

Source: New York Times, Alan Blinder, September 29, 2015


Georgia Scheduled to Execute Kelly Gissendaner

Despite pleas from human rights organizations and a petition signed by 90,000 supporters, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles today denied clemency to Kelly Gissendaner. She is scheduled to be executed tonight.

Gissendaner, 46, was sentenced to death for planning the 1997 killing of her husband. The man who killed her husband was given a life sentence for testifying against her and will be up for parole in eight years.

Gissendaner has since completed a theological certificate through an educational program run by Emory University and has served as a pastoral advisor for other prisoners. Gissendaner’s children have called for clemency. Her execution will mark the first time Georgia has executed a woman in 70 years.

“It is unacceptable that this cruel and inhuman punishment should be allowed to continue,” said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “The death penalty system is irrevocably broken. It is time to end it once and for all.”

Amnesty International USA opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception as cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. As of today, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The U.S. was one of only nine countries in the world that carried out executions each year between 2009 and 2013.

Source: Amnesty International USA, Sept. 29, 2015

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