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…

Firing squad, blood-draining among suggestions sent to Gov. Greg Abbott to continue Texas death penalty

With lethal injection drugs in short supply nationwide, one Texan offered Gov. Greg Abbott what he called a straight-forward, low-cost, pain-free alternative to execute murderers in Texas.

"After administering a strong sedative," he wrote in an email, "just drain blood until they have bled to death."

Other letter writers suggested carbon monoxide poisoning as a painless approach - and maybe even more humane than lethal injection.

A firing squad could save the state money, wrote one man from a Houston suburb.

More than 3,300 people have written to Abbott about his role overseeing executions since he took office in January, accounting for about 11 % of his communication from constituents. Most of the letters - obtained by The Dallas Morning News under the state's open records law - plead with Abbott to grant clemency for inmates facing imminent execution dates. Many are from around the world, in languages including French, German and Dutch.

Many - some more politely than others - ask the governor to follow the lead of other states and stop the death penalty altogether. But about a dozen stood in stark contrast to the majority of letter writers, offering their novel, if sometimes grotesque, ideas for new ways to ensure capital punishment continues in Texas.

Abbott can't change execution protocol; that's the purview of the Legislature. But the issue of how to carry out the death penalty has been top of mind for officials in many states in recent years.

The drugs used in lethal injections have become increasingly difficult to find. European pharmaceutical companies stopped providing some drugs based on their objections to the use of the punishment. Now, Texas and other states are relying largely on compounding pharmacies, which are mostly unregulated, to produce execution drugs.

In its death penalty procedure, Texas uses a single lethal dose of pentobarbital, a barbiturate often used in animal euthanasia. Some states started using it as the supply of other drugs dwindled.

William Blackwood of North Little Rock, Ark., submitted perhaps the most creative proposal in the form of a 5-page, part fiction, part fact, short story he called, "An Alternative Method."

The 90-year-old World War II veteran said in an interview that he's sent his letter to governors in several states, and though a couple acknowledged receiving his suggestion, no one has contacted him about how his alternative method might actually work.

"I know they've got other things they're worrying with," he said.

Nathan Carmack, a small town reporter assigned to cover a death penalty case is the main character in Blackwood's story. Over lunch at a small cafe, he runs into an elderly World War II veteran who trained in San Antonio. The veteran explains to Carmack how he and other cadets were put in a pressure chamber to check their reaction to changes in pressure and oxygen.

The cadets were revived with oxygen shortly before passing out. But if the oxygen wasn't there, the veteran explained, the cadet would "painlessly go to sleep and die of hypoxia." (The veteran's story is the factual part, based on Blackwood's experiences.)

Together, the 2 hatch a plan to present the idea of using a pressure chamber for executions to the Board of Corrections.

"Each of the members was immediately alert and interested!" Blackwood wrote. "Joe (a board member) said, 'I've never even thought of that possibility for an execution!'"

Military experience gave another writer an idea for executions. A retired U.S. Navy diver from Oregon, John Hill, discovered the lethal possibilities of nitrogen when he was nearly killed in a diving incident. Nitrogen, he said, displaces oxygen in the body without causing pain.

"For your concerns I believe it would be a much better way to execute murderers because the (sic) won't know they are going out and they will be dead as soon as the nitrogen has displaced the oxygen in the body quite painlessly," he wrote, adding the procedure would also be cheap.

The most popular suggestion, perhaps not surprisingly in gun-loving Texas, was the firing squad. Peter Sabino, from Montgomery, volunteered to form a squad himself "if legal or applicable."

"I have read that the average lethal injection cost $50,000. I would be willing to provide a five-man squad for $20,000 saving the state of Texas $30,000 on every execution," he wrote.

Jim Greenberg ventured a proposal that would solve 2 problems. Heroin seized from drug busts could be used in lethal injections, he wrote, a solution that would also help reduce the street supply.

Abbott's office has a policy of responding to most of the letters constituents send, said spokesman John Wittman. They try to either answer the writer's questions or connect them with the appropriate person to help.

But the Legislature decides how executions should be carried out. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982, the law has required that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials use lethal injection. While the number and type of drugs has changed in recent years, the process has not.

In letters responding to the execution ideas, Abbott's office explained that his office couldn't help implement their suggestions.

"We understand you are interested in forming a firing squad to carry out executions," wrote Dede Keith, Abbott's deputy director of constituent communications. "Changing Texas' execution method would require action by the Texas Legislature. As such, you may wish to share your concerns with your state legislators."

Source: Dallas Morning News, Brandi Grissom, September 4, 2015

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