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…

Things to know about the upcoming execution in Georgia

Steven Frederick Spears
Steven Frederick Spears
Georgia is preparing to carry out its 8th execution of the year with plans to execute a man who killed his ex-girlfriend 15 years ago.

Steven Frederick Spears, 54, is scheduled to be put to death Wednesday by injection of the barbiturate pentobarbital at the state prison in Jackson. 

He was convicted of murder in the August 2001 slaying of his former girlfriend Sherri Holland at her home in Dahlonega, about 65 miles northeast of Atlanta.

Here are some things to know about the scheduled execution:


Spears told investigators in a 90-minute, tape-recorded confession that he came up with four different plans to kill Holland. According to a summary from the Georgia Supreme Court:

-- He went into the crawl space under her house and attached wires to the drainpipe and cold water pipe of her shower that he planned to attach to her home's circuit board to electrocute her as she showered;

-- He planned to carve a baseball bat from a tree branch, leave it under a canoe at her house and beat her to death with it;

-- He planned to crawl into her house from the crawl space through an air conditioner vent and load her shotgun so he could use it later;

-- He hid duct tape under her canoe so he could choke her, bind her with the tape and suffocate her with a plastic bag.

He ultimately chose the 4th plan, placing Holland's bag-covered head on a pillow, "so her face wouldn't be smashed on the floor," he told investigators. He left her body in her bedroom and locked the door with a padlock to keep her teenage son from entering when he returned home from his dad's house.

Spears lived in the woods for 10 days before an officer saw him walking along a highway, asked his name and arrested him.


Spears said he told Holland when they began dating that if he caught her or heard that she was sleeping with someone else he would "choke her ass to death." He told investigators he told her he loved her just before choking her. Toward the end of his confession, Spears told investigators, "I loved her that much. I told her I wasn't letting her go, and I didn't." He added that he'd do it again if he had to.


Georgia death sentences are automatically appealed. If a sentence is upheld through the direct appeal process, the case generally winds its way through post-conviction appeals in state and federal courts. 

Authorities in Georgia typically wait until those appeals are exhausted before setting an execution date.

But Spears has taken the unusual step of declining to file any post-conviction appeals. His trial attorney, Allyn Stockton, said Spears made it very difficult for his defense team because he threatened to take the stand and torpedo his own case if they presented any mitigating evidence.

Stockton said Spears has failed to answer letters he's sent in recent months and has refused to see him when he's come to the prison to visit recently.

Stockton plans to ask the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to spare Spears' life at a clemency hearing set for Tuesday. 

Enotah Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jeff Langley said he plans to ask the board to allow the execution to proceed. 

The parole board is the only authority in Georgia with power to commute a death sentence.


Spears would be the 8th person put to death by the state of Georgia this year. That's the most in a calendar year in the state since the death penalty was reinstated nationwide in 1976. 

Georgia executed 5 inmates last year and 5 in 1987.

If his execution is carried out, Georgia will have executed more people this year than any other state. 

Texas and Georgia are currently tied with 7 executions apiece. 3 other states - Alabama, Florida and Missouri - have each carried out 1 execution this year, bringing the total number of executions this year to 17.

Source: Associated Press, November 13, 2016

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