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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…

Voters should end the death penalty in California

Voters on Nov. 8 will decide the fate of the long-dormant death penalty in California. 

2 competing propositions address the controversial practice, which was last used by the state corrections system more than 10 years ago. 

Proposition 62 would repeal the death penalty and commute the sentences of those currently on death row to life in prison without possibility of parole. Proposition 66 would change death penalty case appeal processes and set a 5-year limit on state court reviews of such cases. 

Whether to continue or end this ultimate, state-sanctioned punishment is a tough question. The ground has been shifting in this debate nationally, however. While 30 states, including California, still have a death penalty, 10 states have abolished capital punishment since 2007. 4 other states have governor-imposed bans on inmate executions. 

The Desert Sun Editorial Board recommends voters approve Proposition 62 and reject Proposition 66 to bring an end to the death penalty here. It's time to end a system that has seen people of color and residents of particular areas of the state more likely to face this unfairly applied punishment. 

If both initiatives are approved Nov. 8, the measure with the most yes votes will prevail. 

Supporters of Proposition 62, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and ACLU California, argue that capital punishment has proven to be an ineffective, costly blunder for the Golden State, which has seen just 13 executions since 1978. 

The most recent inmate executed - Clarence Ray Allen, who murdered a woman in 1974 and arranged the murders of 3 people from prison later - was put to death in January 2006 at age 76 after having spent more than 23 years on death row. 

Death row inmates cost the state 18 times what those sentenced to life cost, yet this shouldn't just be about the dollars. 

Proponents of capital punishment say justice for society and closure for victims' families require that the ultimate penalty remain an option for the most violent, despicable criminals. That could be a compelling argument indeed, were it not for California's haphazard, legally challenged history when it comes to capital punishment. 

Waiting 23 years for a resolution by execution, having to go through the emotional highs and lows of appeals and hearings, cannot be the type of closure most families want. In fact, one of the co-writers of the ballot argument in favor of ending the death penalty is Beth Webb, the sister of a woman murdered in 2011. 

"California's death penalty system is a long, agonizing ordeal for our family. As my sister's killer sits through countless hearings, we continually relive this tragedy. The death penalty is an empty promise of justice. A life sentence without parole would bring real closure," Webb wrote. 

Backers of competing Proposition 66, including law enforcement associations, the California District Attorneys Association and DA Mike Hestrin, argue that the death penalty should remain an option when dealing with the most heinous crimes. Streamlining it via Proposition 66's changes would correct the problem of long delays, they say. 

The changes, however, are complex and ripe for legal challenges and potential for actually increasing delays in an already clogged legal system. 

Among these are the designation of Superior Court, where the cases originate, as the venue for initial appeals and limitation of successive appeals; a requirement that attorneys who take noncapital appeals also accept death penalty appeals; and placing an arbitrary, 5-year limit on the state court appeals process. 

While backers argue these moves would speed up the process, adding the burden of such appeals to the originating Superior Court system is just as likely to do the opposite as well as create a conflict of interest. In addition, compelling appellate lawyers not experienced in capital cases to take such cases could result in many dropping that line of litigation or end up with an innocent condemned convict having inexperienced counsel to his or her literally fatal detriment. 

Don't discount the odds of such an event. A 2014 study by University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross estimated that 1 in 25 inmates sentenced to death across America from 1973-2004 was innocent. If California has a death penalty, it should be made as bulletproof as possible when it comes to questions about whether an innocent person might be condemned. 

The best solution for California is ending the death penalty and offering victims and society the closure of having the worst offenders spending life in prison without parole. 

Vote yes on Proposition 62 and no on Proposition 66. 

Source: Desert Sun Editorial Board, October 23, 2016

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