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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…

Federal Appeals Panel Overturns Anti-Death Penalty Ruling in California

California's brand new death chamber
California's brand new death chamber
In a setback for opponents of capital punishment, a federal appeals panel in California on Thursday overturned a 2014 ruling that could have voided the death sentences of hundreds of prisoners in the state.

Last year, in a decision seen by death penalty foes as pathbreaking, a federal district judge held that California’s multistaged system for reviewing death sentences was so afflicted with delays and arbitrariness that it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Had it survived the legal challenge, that finding would have called into question the death sentences of hundreds of prisoners on death row in California and given energy to similar arguments in other states.

But on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the 2014 decision was improper on technical grounds and overturned it. Citing Supreme Court precedent, the panel said that in a habeas corpus petition, as was filed on behalf of a condemned prisoner in this case, the federal courts may not retroactively apply “new rules of constitutional criminal procedure” to overrule a state criminal court’s decision.

Many legal experts said the ruling was expected because of the strong procedural challenges that California prosecutors had raised, which included an argument that the inmate had failed, as required, to exhaust all his state court options.

But through further state appeals of this case or others like it, some said, the underlying argument about systemic dysfunction could remain a potent one, eventually reaching the Supreme Court in an era of growing questions about capital punishment.

The argument that implementation of death sentences has become unacceptably delayed and arbitrary is particularly strong in the case of California, and Thursday’s ruling, which will probably be appealed, is not going to result in executions anytime soon.

Of more than 900 people condemned to die in California since 1978, when the death penalty was reinstated, only 13 have been executed — a “random few,” said Judge Cormac J. Carney, in Fresno, in the 2014 opinion overturned Thursday.

Some inmates died on death row, while others had their sentences altered. Currently, more than 740 prisoners in the state await execution.

Click here to read the full article

Source: The New york Times, Erik Eckholm, November 12, 2015
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