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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…

Racial bias found in Texas death penalty cases, Harvard Law School study says

Texas death chamber
Texas death chamber
Harris County was named 1 of 16 'outlier' counties in the US, where 5 or more death sentences were assessed between 2010 and 2015

A Harvard Law School study has found that racial bias, overly aggressive prosecutions and inadequate representation for poor defendants affect death penalty cases in Harris County, Texas. Juries in the county, which includes Houston, have imposed the death penalty more than any other county in the US since its reinstatement in 1976.

The Fair Punishment Project also notes that the number of death sentences handed down in Harris County has fallen to 10 since 2010, from 53 between 1998 and 2003.

Harris County was named 1 of 16 "outlier" counties in the US, where 5 or more death sentences were assessed in between 2010 and 2015. In the 8 counties examined by the study, 41% of the death sentences were given to black defendants and 69% to minorities overall. In Harris County, all defendants condemned since 2004 were from racial minority groups.

"When you look at what the death penalty actually looks like on the ground in Harris County, you see things that should disturb you," Rob Smith, one of the researchers on the project, told the Houston Chronicle.

"There's a pattern of overzealous prosecution that dates back for decades but is still present in the time period for the study, and is matched by under-zealous [defense] representation in cases."

Harris County district attorney Devon Anderson said her office was judicious in its use of the death penalty.

"When we seek death, it's because we have a solid guilt/innocence case and a very strong punishment case," she said. "The death penalty is only appropriate for the worst of the worst."

Anderson said she did not know the race of a defendant or victim whenever she and 4 top staff members met to discuss whether to seek the death penalty.

"I think it's very important that it be 'blind' in that regard," she said.

Juries across the country are proving to be increasingly reluctant to sentence defendants to death, the Harvard report said, choosing instead the option of life imprisonment without parole.

The last Harris County trial in which prosecutors sought the death penalty ended in November: 28-year-old Jonathan Sanchez was given life without parole. The last Harris County jury to assess a death sentence did so in 2014, when Harlem Lewis was sent to death row for the killings of Bellaire police officer Jimmie Norman and "good samaritan" Terry Taylor.

The Harris County district attorney's office is currently seeking the death penalty in 2 cases. Ronald Haskell, who is white, is accused of killing 2 adults and 4 children from his ex-wife's family in spring 2014. David Ray Conley, who is black, is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, her husband and 6 children, including his son, last year.

Source: The Guardian, August 28, 2016

Study: Harris County death penalty cases plagued by bias


A Harvard Law School study reports that racial bias, over-aggressive prosecutions and poor representation for indigent defendants plagues the handling of death-penalty cases in the Southeast Texas county where Houston is situated.

The report by the school's Fair Punishment Project names Harris County as one of 16 "outlier" U.S. counties where 5 or more death sentences were assessed in 2010-15.

Harris County juries have imposed death penalties on more defendants than in any other county since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. The number of death sentences has fallen from 53 in 1998 through 2003 to 10 since 2010. However, all condemned since 2004 are from minorities.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2brIHX6) her office is judicious in its use of the death penalty.

Source: Associated Press, August 28, 2016

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