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…

Despite ruling abolishing the death penalty, Connecticut inmates still being housed on death row

Former death-row inmates in Connecticut may soon be living under less restrictive prison conditions than other inmates convicted of similar crimes, legal experts say.

Connecticut's Supreme Court last month declared capital punishment unconstitutional in the state, striking down part of a 2012 law that had allowed the death penalty only for those already facing execution.

That statute replaced what had been known as "capital felony" with a new crime, "murder with special circumstances." Under the new law, anyone who is convicted of what would have previously been a death-penalty eligible crime is now sentenced to life in prison under conditions mimicking death row.

That means being held in single cell for 22 hours a day, being escorted by at least one staff member and placed in restraints when moving outside that cell. Of the 2 hours considered "recreation," 1 would typically be spent indoors, in an area that houses a law library and a phone. The other would be spent alone in a cage outside in a courtyard. There would be no physical contact with other inmates.

Ironically, the 11 inmates currently housed on death row may soon be escaping those conditions.

Those inmates must now be re-sentenced to life without parole under the old capital felony statue, which existed when they were convicted, their attorneys say.

Though the Correction Department has leeway in the conditions imposed on individual inmates, someone sentenced to life without parole under the old statute was typically placed in the general population and allowed to be out of a cell six to seven hours a day with other inmates. They also have access to the prison commissary and gym.

"At some point, the death-row inmates are going to be let into general population," said attorney Mark Rademacher, who successfully argued for the abolishment of capital punishment as the attorney for Eduardo Santiago and currently represents death-row inmate Russell Peeler Jr. "I don't see how the state could oppose that."

So far, none of the death-row inmates has been moved, said Department of Correction spokeswoman Karen Martucci.

"Nothing has changed with the management of the death-row population since their sentence has not been legally changed by a court," she wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "I really couldn't predict when any court action will take place."

The process has been delayed, in part, because prosecutors have asked the court to reconsider the August ruling that declared capital punishment unconstitutional.

The chief state's attorney's office, citing that pending litigation, declined to comment for this story.

Michael Courtney, who heads the capital defense unit for the state's Office of the Public Defender, said the high court typically does not grant motions to reconsider, but the legal maneuver could lead to further delays in abolishing death row.

"I guess (prosecutors) feel like they have to keep swinging," he said. "They have the procedural mechanism to delay this, and they have used it."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is also monitoring the proceedings.

ACLU attorney David McGuire said the Correction Department already has the authority to decide where the former death-row inmates belong based on factors such as their age, mental health, disciplinary record while in prison and the security risk they present.

It is possible that some will remain at the Northern Correctional Institution under the state's tightest security, known as level five, while others are sent to other prisons as level four inmates or even to medical units, he said.

"All of those are very restrictive environments," he said. "These are not luxurious settings."

Source: Associated Press, Sept. 19, 2015

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