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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…

USA: Gavel Comes Down Harder in Election Season

The closer judges get to an election date, the more likely they are to impose harsher sentences and the death penalty, a report published Wednesday by the Brennan Center for Justice says.

The 28-page report parses 10 studies from various states, court levels and types of election, which investigated how judicial elections affect a judge's ruling on criminal cases.

All studies found that proximity to re-election correlated to judges more frequently imposing longer sentences, affirming death sentences and overriding life imprisonment sentences for the death penalty.

The report delves into 15 years of advertising for state supreme court elections, finding the percentage of ads that attack a candidate's history of decisions on criminal cases is on the rise, with 56 percent of the most recent ads discussing the topic, up from 33 % in the ads from 2010.

A focus on court decisions puts pressure on judges to be seen as "tough on crime," and turns the defendants into victims, the report finds.

Linking to a 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, the Brennan Center say judges are aware of the pressure.

"Judges who are running for re-election do keep in mind what the next 30-second ad is going to look like," former Justice Oliver Diaz from Mississippi said, as quoted in the reports.

The expense of running a judicial election these days only compounds the pressure, the Brennan Center found, following up on an October report about the rise in special-interest groups with a hand in such races.

"Between 1999 and 2014, the average spending for state supreme court elections was $57.7 million in presidential cycles and $37.1 million in non-presidential cycles," the report states.

Interest groups pay for about 1/3 of TV-ad spending, but 53 percent of these ads have a negative tone. By comparison, only 5 % of candidates' ads go negative, and political parties never sponsored an ad with a negative message, researchers found.

"Given the extraordinary power state court judges exercise over the liberty, and even lives, of defendants, it is vital that they remain impartial," the report says. "But mounting evidence suggests that the dynamics of judicial elections may threaten judges' ability to serve as impartial arbitrators in criminal cases."

"How Judicial Elections Impact Criminal Cases" is authored by Kate Berry, counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. The Brennan Center is run by the New York University School of Law.

Source: Courthouse News, December 3, 2015 (wr)

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