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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…

Death penalty: Soon to be a relic

"Ol' Sparky, the Lone Star State's official instrument of death for 40 years,
resides these days in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville."
Capital punishment is a morally and fiscally unsupportable program.

Ol' Sparky, the Lone Star State's official instrument of death for 40 years, resides these days in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. It's the museum's most popular exhibit, although the time is coming, we predict, when it will have competition. In the not-too-distant future, the needles, the drugs and the officious execution protocol that comprise the capital-punishment regimen in Texas also will be quaint relics on display. Museum visitors will marvel that a civilized society sustained such barbarism long after most Western democracies abjured the practice. The killing tools already are relics in most states, even where capital punishment remains on the books.

What's surprising is that the death penalty's demise is coming sooner than most Americans expected, even in Texas, the nation's most enthusiastic practitioner of state-sponsored killing. The U.S. Supreme Court may never get around to ruling that capital punishment is "cruel and unusual," but the practice will wither away, nevertheless. In fact, the process already has begun, even in the county that leads the nation in executions, Harris County. The recent election of Kim Ogg as Harris County district attorney means that voters have chosen a prosecutor more open to reform and reductions in capital prosecutions than her predecessor.

According to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center, death sentences, executions and public support for the death penalty continued their precipitous decline nationwide. Juries around the country imposed 30 death sentences this year, compared to 315 in 1996. This year's number represents the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment.

Twenty people were executed in 2016, the lowest number since 1991, and those executions were geographically isolated. Two states, Georgia and Texas, accounted for 80 percent of all executions. Thirty-two states still allow capital punishment for the most heinous crimes, but most rarely, if ever, use it. Since the start of 2014, five states - Texas, Georgia, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma - have carried out all but two of the nation's executions.

Public support for the death penalty also continues to decline. According to a Pew Research Survey, support fell below 50 percent for the first time in more than four decades. Support falls even further when respondents are given alternatives, including life without parole.

Capital punishment is unlikely to be abolished permanently anytime soon. For now, only one member of the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer, questions whether it violates the Eighth Amendment. That number is unlikely to change when President-elect Donald Trump, a death-penalty supporter, gets to make his appointments to the court. His attorney-general nominee, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, also is an ardent death-penalty supporter.

What will happen, though, is that practicality will trump principle. Racism, randomness, decades-long delays and sheer expense will end capital punishment in this country - without officially ending capital punishment. Pragmatism prevails even in Texas. Time magazine a couple of years ago quoted Liberty County prosecutor Stephen Taylor, who acknowledged that cost is a factor in deciding on death. "You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money," he said.

Time also quoted Atlanta attorney David J. Burge, a leader of the Georgia Republican Party. "Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government," he said. "The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program."

We agree. Whether it's principle or pragmatism that kills capital punishment, the end can't come too soon.

Source: Houston Chronicle, December 30, 2016

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