Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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…

Alabama officials: too much time, money spent on death row

Alabama officials want to lessen the amount of time convicted murderers spend on death row - and the amount of time and money the state spends fighting their appeals.

"I'm frustrated with the whole process, not just Tommy Arthur," said Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville.

Arthur, one of the state's longest-serving death row inmates, had his execution stayed for the 7th time earlier this month.

"The Legislature needs to make a decision. We're either going to have a death penalty, or we need to repeal all these laws," Greer said. "We've made a joke of this."

He estimated lengthy appeals cost the state millions of dollars.

Arthur's 7th stay is exceptional, and his latest appeals are based on the state's lethal injection method. But in general, it takes too long to carry out the death penalty in Alabama because of the appeals process, officials said.

Greer is working with others, including the Madison County District Attorney's Office, on legislation to shorten the time. The legislation is modeled after Texas law.

"No one is for taking any appeals away from anyone, we just don't want this to drag out for years," Greer said. "It's not federal law that causes these lags, it's state law. And the Legislature can change that."

Jay Town, the assistant district attorney in Madison County, has been working on the proposed legislation. He said the way the process works now, it can take up to 25 years for a death penalty to be carried out. Officials from the Alabama Attorney General's Office in 2013 said the average time on death row was 15.5 years and growing.

In Texas, it's a little more than 10 years.

Like Texas, Alabama has 2 routes for appeals on death penalty cases in state courts. In Texas, the 2 appeals processes run concurrently. In Alabama, 1 has to end before the 2nd begins. Sometimes, the 2nd occurs a decade after conviction, Town said.

Greer sponsored legislation in 2013 to send appeals directly to the Alabama Supreme Court, skipping the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. That bill died without a committee vote.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said death penalty appeals "has been a line in the sand" for Democrats who have fought previous legislation.

"But Greer is right, there does seem to be a need to streamline (appeals)," Ward said. "It's a waste of resources and time."

He said long appeals processes are cruel to victims' families.

"Every time an appeal is held, you're putting the families of victims through this all over again," Ward said.

Cruel and inhumane

It's cruel to the criminal's family too, said Sherrie Stone. Her father, Arthur, has been on death row for 33 years. She hasn't taken a position on the death penalty until this year. She wants it abolished, not because it's cruel and unusual - most of the inmates on death row did much worse to their victims, she said.

"However, the death penalty process is cruel and inhumane for the families," Stone said last week. "(For) both sets of families.

"You have years of appeals, in some cases multiple scheduled executions. I know the government's answer is to speed up the executions. That is not the answer."

Since 1973, more than 156 death row inmates have been exonerated, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

"With life without parole, it eliminates years of appeals and the scheduled executions," Stone said. "At least people can move on with their lives."

The Alabama Attorney General's Office last week declined to comment on any death penalty changes it'd like to see. A spokesperson said they do not track the costs from Arthur's appeals.

Some lawmakers estimate death penalty appeals cost millions, but they don't want to back away from state executions.

"At some point, society has the right to protect itself, and that's a right of the state that needs to be maintained," Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, said recently. "I don't think we should abandon the state's position on the death penalty because it costs too much money to try the case."

Brewbaker this year sponsored a bill to create an Innocence Inquiry Commission to review death-row inmates' claims of innocence. The bill passed in the Senate but died in the House.

"I will bring it back (in the 2017 session) if there's any chance of it coming to the House floor for a vote," Brewbaker said. "Last time, there just wasn't. I'm not going to do anything to raise any false hopes for anyone - it seems cruel."

Brewbaker is pro-death penalty, but said no stone should be left unturned when proving guilt.

"I don't think the system is as sound as we think it is," he said.

Death debate continues

There will be a bill in the Legislature next year to repeal the death penalty. It' s perennial legislation from Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma.

"I feel like it's a tremendous waste of time and money," Sanders said Friday. "And I think it's a waste of life.

"Just from a practical point of view, we ought not be in the business of killing people.

Alabama currently has 185 inmates on death row, according to the Department of Corrections' website. The longest-serving inmate is Arthur Lee Giles, who was put there for a Morgan County murder in 1979. Besides Arthur, 5 other inmates will have been there at least or more than 30 years this year. About 30 more have been there 20 or more years.

"If we're going to have the death penalty, it shouldn't take 30 years," Town said.

Arthur was sentenced to death for the 1982 murder of Muscle Shoals resident Troy Wicker. Arthur's most recent appeals have challenged the constitutionality of the state's 3-drug lethal injection procedure.

Last week, a federal judge said he may allow the state to use a large dose of one sedative to execute another inmate in December. U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins gave Ronald Bert Smith's attorneys 1 week to argue why the state should not execute Smith using a large dose of midazolam, followed by a continuous infusion of the same drug.

Meanwhile, in response to challenges to the lethal injection procedure, Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, earlier this month proposed legislation to allow the state to execute by firing squad.

Greer said if the state wants the death penalty, it needs to address the delays in carrying out executions.

"Let's either make it effective or let's repeal it," Greer said. "But let's stop fooling people, especially victims' families."

Source: Times Daily, November 12, 2016

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