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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…

Ohio's former prisons chief: 'The death penalty isn't worth fixing'

It's been six years since I retired after more than three decades at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. I held various positions including warden, regional director, assistant director and then director. Included in my responsibilities was the participation in the execution of 33 men from 2001 to 2010.

With each execution I asked myself: Did the extensive process of appeals ensure we got it right? I often wondered if we made a mistake. My curiosity arose because I had walked people out of prison after years of incarceration who turned out to be innocent.

Our judicial and corrections system is among the finest in the world and the envy of nations. We provide the best attorneys, judges, and corrections personnel anywhere. I know, and have worked closely with many of them. Yet we continue to be one of the few industrialized nations to carry out the death penalty even when we know mistakes happen.

Innocent People on Death Row

Every year, more innocent prisoners walk off death rows in the U.S. -- 156 since 1972. These troubling trends tell us this is no anomaly. Ohio has executed 53 and exonerated nine men. I think about these statistics and am troubled by Ohio's track record. Why? Because I'll always remember Gary Beeman, Ohio's first death row exoneree, who walked out of prison to a new trial and freedom. Turns out Gary didn't commit the crime that sent him to Death Row.

My concerns are not limited to the possibility of killing an innocent person. The death penalty is expensive, inefficient and takes far too long. I believe it only prolongs the pain and healing process for victims' families.

As one who values fairness and equality as the bedrock of our legal system, I do not accept the argument that we only execute the worst of the worst. The offenders in our prisons I encountered who committed unimaginable crimes were usually not on Death Row. The vast majority of those on Death Row were convicted under Ohio's felony murder rule, for killing someone in process of another crime such as robbery or kidnapping.

Failed Public Policy

A recently released study examined Ohio's 53 executions. This study found that the race of the victim and the county where the crime took place matter more than the severity of the crime. I think these disparities are important points of discussion regarding the use of the death penalty in Ohio.

I am not alone among corrections professionals who consider the death penalty a failed public policy. My predecessor, former ODRC Director Dr. Reginald Wilkinson, also opposes executions. We've joined with other former corrections officials across our great nation asking legislators to end the death penalty. After being quoted in my local paper in Chillicothe about my concerns with capital punishment, I received calls from former colleagues thanking me for saying out loud what they could not.

My concerns about the death penalty led me to join Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty. Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty is an independent group of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and corrections officials. We're ready to discuss concerns we share about the death penalty in this country so that policymakers may explore alternatives. Some of us oppose the death penalty while others support it under certain circumstances. We all recognize problems with the current death penalty, particularly that it diverts needed resources from policing and community safety.

A Better Alternative

I am pleased to stand with former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, another member of Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty. He helped write Ohio's death penalty law as a legislator and saw 18 executions as Ohio's chief prosecutor. Jim and I join a majority of Ohioans who believe the current sentencing alternative of life without parole keeps Ohio communities safe. The sentence of life without parole is effectively severe and holds offenders accountable. Over 540 inmates are currently in custody of the Department of Correction with sentences of life without parole.

It is time for state officials to have serious and thoughtful conversations about whether Ohio's death penalty remains necessary. A recent task force appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court made 56 recommendations to fix problems with the fairness and accuracy of Ohio's system.

My experience tells me the death penalty isn't worth fixing. Our justice system will be more fair and effective without the death penalty.

Source: WCPO, Terry J. Collins, Feb. 24, 2016. Terry J. Collins was director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction from 2006 to 2010 and worked in the prison system for nearly 33 years. He is currently a member of Ohioans to Stop Executions.

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