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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…

Anti-death penalty group outlines human costs of Nebraska's capital punishment

As the clock ticks down on Nebraska voters' decision on whether to retain the Legislature's decision to repeal the death penalty, the anti-death penalty campaign on Tuesday zeroed in on wrongful murder convictions.

Retain A Just Nebraska, the organization that wants voters to replace the death penalty with life in prison for 1st-degree murder convictions, held a morning news conference Tuesday with a member of the wrongfully convicted Beatrice 6.

Ada JoAnn Taylor and attorneys Jeff Patterson, Bob Bartle and Herb Friedman, who represented 5 of the the Beatrice 6, talked to reporters about the human cost of the death penalty.

Taylor and 5 others spent a collective 70 years in prison for the 1985 murder and rape of Helen Wilson of Beatrice before they were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008. 1 of the 6, Joseph White, died on the job at an Alabama steel mill in 2011.

Taylor's son was 14 months old when she was taken away in the middle of the night after a cold-case investigation led to her arrest in 1989. She didn't see him again until 10 months ago. And she has never seen her grandchildren.

In a federal civil rights trial in June, jurors heard evidence of what caused the wrongful convictions -- and about everything they lost when they were sent to prison, Patterson said.

"This evidence led a jury to award our clients over $28.1 million," he said. "It was compensation to right a wrong of the worst miscarriage of justice in Nebraska history."

The productive years from age 25 to 45, when many people start careers, get married, watch children grow, were stolen from Taylor and co-defendant Tom Winslow when they were convicted of 2nd-degree murder and from White, who was sentenced to life for 1st-degree murder.

"Money cannot possibly make up for the human cost of a wrongful conviction," Patterson said.

Taylor, Winslow and 3 others -- Debra Shelden, Kathy Gonzalez and James Dean -- entered pleas in the case. White pleaded not guilty and was convicted after a trial.

"The threat of the death penalty was terrifying and overwhelming," Taylor said Tuesday. "I came to believe that I must have been guilty even though I had nothing to do with Mrs. Wilson's murder."

Taylor, who spent 19 years, 7 months and 26 days locked up, told her story for TV and online ads. At the news conference, she said she was told nearly every day she was in the Gage County jail that she would be the first woman on death row unless she pleaded guilty.

She had a mental illness, borderline personality disorder, she said, and she began having dreams and visions at the time that she was involved in a crime she knew nothing about. Ultimately, she developed a delusion that she was the one who suffocated Helen Wilson.

In fact, said Patterson, some of those delusions are still present.

With enough pressure, he said, everybody has a breaking point. The county attorney and the Gage County sheriff knew Taylor was at risk for psychotic lapses when under stress, he said.

Dean, who was sentenced to 10 years for aiding and abetting second-degree murder and released after serving about five, insisted at the time that he was innocent, the attorneys said Tuesday. But he was so nervous and distraught -- and having anxiety attacks because of the threat of the death penalty -- that a reserve sheriff's deputy who was also a psychologist was brought in to counsel him.

The deputy told Dean he was repressing his memory, and if he just relaxed, his recollection of what happened in Wilson's home would come back to him in dreams, Patterson said.

"Almost immediately, James started having dreams about a murder he knew nothing about," he said Tuesday.

Gonzalez and Winslow also knew they weren't guilty, but they entered guilty pleas in the case, Patterson said.

"Threatening suspects with execution may resolve cases, but is it the kind of resolution we can afford?" he asked.

Taylor is 53 now, and said she is speaking out for those who don't have a voice. She is still trying to reconnect with family members with whom she lost contact.

"Just trying to be a typical, normal housewife, per se," Taylor said.

Despite her exoneration, some people continue to believe she and the others are guilty, she said. "It's hard."

The 5 living people who were convicted of killing Wilson felt they were being tried again during the federal trial accusing Gage County, Deputy Sheriff Burdette Searcey and Reserve Deputy Wayne Price of violating their civil rights, Patterson said.

"All of them felt the trial exonerated them from Mrs. Wilson's murder, as much as it did convict the Gage County authorities for what they did," he said.

Source: Lincoln Journal Star, October 26, 2016

Tour speakers include Ohio man formerly on death row


During the 20 years he spent on death row, Joe D'Ambrosio became filled with despair as he lost one appeal after another.

D'Ambrosio was innocent. It started to look as though he would be executed for something he didn't do, and no one was paying attention to him.

"Once you're convicted, no one listens to the man in the orange jumpsuit," D'Ambrosio said. "No one listens to the dead man walking. They all say they didn't do it."

The Ohio man was eventually exonerated, but he now spends much of his time speaking against the death penalty. The only purpose of capital punishment is to keep society safe from the criminals who've been convicted, he said. Life without parole serves the same purpose. Those people will never see the outside of prison.

"When you leave, you leave in a pine box," he said.

If authorities find out later that someone serving a life sentence was innocent, they can release him, D'Ambrosio said.

D'Ambrosio was one of several people who spoke on Tuesday night at St. Mary's Cathedral at a gathering presented by the Nebraska Catholic Conference. The speaking tour also visited Omaha on Monday and will conclude today in Lincoln.

Nebraska's 3 Catholic dioceses organized the tour to help persuade the state's voters to uphold the abolition of the death penalty on Nov. 8.

Gathering signatures against the Nebraska repeal
Gathering signatures against the Nebraska repeal
D'Ambrosio, who lives in North Ridgeville, Ohio, was 26 when he went to prison, sentenced to death for the 1988 murder of Tony Klann of Cleveland. Prosecutorial misconduct led to his conviction.

Defenders of the death penalty say it's a deterrent to crime. D'Ambrosio, who got to know a lot of criminals, says it is not.

"Actually, most of the guys that are on 'The Row' would rather be executed than put in prison for the rest of their lives," he said in an interview. People serving a life sentence always have to worry and look over their shoulder. The next guy sentenced to prison might be a friend or relative of the person the inmate killed.

D'Ambrosio, who will turn 55 on Dec. 1, was released from prison in 2010 thanks to the efforts of the Rev. Neil Kookoothe, who is also on the Nebraska speaking tour.

Kookoothe, who is a lawyer and nurse as well as a Catholic priest, said the death penalty does not prevent crime.

He said many people who commit violent acts are under the influence of alcohol or drugs or are consumed with rage. People in that condition are not going to stop and ask themselves if they'll get the death penalty before they take action, Kookoothe said. No government, especially "a democracy as great as ours," should be in the business of taking people's lives, said Kookoothe, who works at a parish in North Olmsted, Ohio.

Kookoothe said he can counter any pro-death-penalty argument except the one that cares only about vengeance. People who seek capital punishment simply out of revenge should admit it, he said. But we, as a people, should not be killing criminals for that reason, Kookoothe said.

Another person on the speaking tour is Marietta Jaeger-Lane, whose 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped from a Montana campground and killed in 1973.

Executing a person solves nothing, Jaeger-Lane said. All it does is make another victim and victimize the killer's family. By killing people, a government takes on the mindset that the murderer had, which "degrades and demeans all of us," Jaeger-Lane said.

Executions are done in our name "as citizens of the state," using our tax dollars, she said. People need to step up and protest if the practice violates their values, said the former Michigan woman, who now lives in Punta Gorda, Fla.

The man who killed her daughter, David Meirhofer, would not confess to that murder and others as long as prosecutors were seeking the death penalty, Jaeger-Lane said.

Exactly one year after killing her daughter, Meirhofer called Jaeger-Lane in the middle of the night to gloat. Jaeger-Lane, whose faith was strengthened after her daughter's death, told Meirhofer she was praying for him. She kept him on the phone for an hour and a half because he was "my only connection with Susie."

During the conversation, Meirhofer let his guard down and revealed enough information that the FBI was able to catch him.

Jaeger-Lane argued for life without parole, which was implemented by the Montana Legislature the year Meirhofer was sentenced.

Meirhofer committed suicide the same day as his guilty plea. Jaeger-Lane has since become friends with his mother.

Jaeger-Lane, who speaks all over the world, believes that life is sacred.

She regularly spends time with prisoners just to let them know that someone cares about them.

Most crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, she said. When they've sobered up, "they're really very nice guys," she said.

Source: The Independent, October 26, 2016

Nebraska politicians can't agree on the death penalty - now voters get to decide


After the conservative state repealed capital punishment and the governor unsuccessfully tried to keep it, a bid to bring it back again will go to the public

When Nebraska last year became the 1st conservative state to repeal the death penalty in more than 40 years, change came through a vote that saw ideological opponents of capital punishment unite with pragmatists worried about cost and effectiveness.

But it was not an outcome that the state's governor, Pete Ricketts, was ready to accept. In a contentious tug-of-war, Ricketts vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature before the lawmakers overrode him by a 30 to 19 vote.

Within a few weeks, death penalty supporters gathered enough signatures to introduce a ballot measure. Ricketts is bankrolling that effort, to the tune of $300,000.

This bid to bring back capital punishment again will go to a public vote on 8 November, as both sides escalate their spending and their rhetoric in an ideological battle over the penalty, even though the sparsely populated state of less than 2 million people rarely carries it out.

"I think a lot of people, that rubbed them the wrong way - but you know, that's the democratic process and now the voters get to decide," Dan Parsons, a spokesman for the anti-death penalty group Retain a Just Nebraska, said of the governor's contributions.

Retain a Just Nebraska, which Parsons says has raised $2.7m, began airing a television commercial this week featuring Ada JoAnn Taylor, one of the Beatrice 6.

Gathering signatures against the Nebraska repealTaylor spent more than 19 years in prison as 1 of 6 people wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a 68-year-old woman in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1985. "After my arrest I was threatened with the death penalty and told I'd be the 1st woman on death row in Nebraska nearly every day that I was in the Gage County jail until I agreed to plead guilty," she told a press conference on Tuesday.

She was taken away from her 14-month-old son and had to give him up for adoption. They did not meet again for 26 years. Taylor said that anxiety about possibly being executed caused her to become delusional: "The threat of the death penalty was terrifying and overwhelming, I came to believe I must have been guilty."

The governor has countered in a newspaper column that "checks and balances in Nebraska ensure that the death penalty is used sparingly and applied justly, and rapid advancements in DNA technology will help to ensure accuracy in future cases."

Ricketts' father, Joe, has also given $100,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the Omaha World-Herald reported. The group did not respond to requests for comment. Joe Ricketts is a billionaire who founded the online broker TD Ameritrade. The Ricketts family owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

"This is an internal political fight between Governor Ricketts and the legislature," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "He has staked his political prestige on overturning the repeal of the death penalty."

Voters in California and Oklahoma will also decide death penalty questions on 8 November. Confusingly, the ballot language in Nebraska means that selecting "retain" will abolish capital punishment and "repeal" will keep it, raising the possibility that some votes will be cast erroneously.

Nebraska has executed three people since capital punishment was reinstated nationwide in 1976 and none since 1997, when Robert Williams, convicted of multiple murders, died in the electric chair. Its death row consists of 10 people. Across the country, 17 people have been executed this year in 5 states, but the punishment is in decline - the US is on track for the fewest judicial killings in a year since 1991.

Parsons cited a disputed study by a Creighton University economist, which claims that Nebraska's death penalty costs on average an extra $14.6m annually compared with life without parole.

"Fiscal conservatives - whether you're Republican or Democrat - I think most people in Nebraska don't like wasting tax dollars," he said. Colby Coash, a Republican state senator, was one of the conservatives who voted for the repeal, calling the practice unjust.

In a speech last year he said his stance was informed by seeing the suffering of the sister of a murder victim who waited in vain for 30 years for her brother's killer to be executed. In the end, the death row inmate died of cancer.

Coash also recalled feeling uneasy when, as a college student in Lincoln in 1994, he went to the state penitentiary for a late-night execution. People gathered outside to celebrate in what he described as a carnival-like atmosphere, with a band playing, people drinking beer and grilling food and a New Year's Eve-style clock counting down the minutes until midnight.

"You wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between what I was participating in at 11 o'clock at night and what you might see an hour before a [college] football game," he told the audience. "At midnight, everybody cheered ... and fireworks shot off."

A report in the New York Times put the crowd at about 2,000. Harold Otey was executed in the same electric chair used in Nebraska's previous execution, 35 years earlier. "Mr Otey made no final statement, but mouthed 'I love you,' to his 3 chosen witnesses after he was strapped into the chair,' the report said. "Sweat poured off his head and soaked his shirt. Minutes later, 4 2,400-volt jolts of electricity coursed through his body. After the 3rd jolt, smoke rose from his left leg."

Even if voters decide in favor of the punishment, other hurdles pose considerable challenges to future executions in the state.

Now committed to the lethal injection method, it is far from clear that the state would even be able to source suitable drugs. As BuzzFeed reported, last year Nebraska spent $26,700 on a feckless attempt to import drugs from a dubious source in India. The shipment never left the country because the drugs were likely illegal to import into the US and would have been seized by federal authorities.

"Even if the voters restore the death penalty, there's no guarantee that the statute is even constitutional" in the light of a US supreme court decision in January on the role of juries in sentencing in Florida, Dunham said. "There's a very significant prospect that Nebraska's death penalty statute would be declared unconstitutional because the ultimate sentencing decision there, the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, is made by a 3-judge panel" rather than a jury, he said.

Source: The Guardian, October 26, 2016

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