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…

New Mexico: GOP to revive death penalty proposal during session

The death penalty will again be an issue in the state Legislature when it reconvenes next week.

A capital punishment bill, sponsored by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, is identical to what was perhaps the most divisive piece of legislation in last fall’s special session of the Legislature.

But unlike last year, Republicans — who lost control of the House in the November election — will have a much harder time getting a capital punishment bill to the House floor.

“It’s my hope that people don’t see it as a full reinstatement of the death penalty,” Youngblood said Monday.

The state abolished the death penalty in 2009.

Youngblood said her bill, House Bill 72, targets “only the most heinous criminals, the ones that prey upon our children and our police officers.”

Like last year’s bill, which she co-sponsored, Youngblood’s new bill would make murdering a law enforcement officer, corrections personnel or a child the only crimes that would be eligible for a death sentence.

Youngblood said polls show most New Mexicans favor capital punishment for certain crimes.

But Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said Monday the death penalty is riddled with problems.

“There have been numerous examples around the country as well as in New Mexico of people who were sentenced to death later being exonerated,” McQueen said. “And it’s tremendously expensive. I believe it’s a waste of resources. I’m hopeful this year we’ll make short work of it.”

Bringing back capital punishment would bring additional costs to a judicial system already strapped by the state’s budget crunch.

Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, in an opinion piece submitted to various news organizations, wrote, “New Mexico’s courts face a funding crisis that threatens to undermine the judiciary’s ability to protect our rights by delivering timely justice. … The prosecution of criminal cases is being impaired. Some courts confront the possibility of dismissing cases because the state’s public defender office lacks the staff and budget it needs to handle more cases.”

A fiscal analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee of last year’s death penalty bill said reinstating executions could cost the state up to $7.2 million a year over a three-year period.

“The cost to the judicial system to process one individual through the death penalty process, which historically has taken an average of 11 years, is about $105,000 per year,” the report says. “The cost to incarcerate one individual on death row is $51,100 a year.”

In the analysis, the Administrative Office of the Courts estimated that a death penalty jury trial would cost $12,000 to $17,000 more than a nondeath penalty case. More jury costs would be incurred because after finding someone guilty in a death penalty case, a jury would have to determine whether to impose capital punishment.

The report also said that in cases stemming from the 2007 Santa Rosa prison riot — in which prosecutors initially sought the death penalty for three inmates in the killing of a corrections officer — the state Public Defender’s Office spent $474,600 on contract defense attorneys, $1 million on expert witnesses and $76,800 on other costs before trial. The total expense to the department was $1.6 million.

In that case, the state Supreme Court ruled that unless the Legislature appropriated funds in addition to the $1.1 million previously allocated for the case, the death penalty could not be imposed. The Legislature didn’t approve those funds, so prosecutors dropped the death penalty from the case.

HB 72 includes a number of mitigating circumstances — such as the defendant’s age, mental capacity and prior criminal record — that could be weighed by a jury in considering imposing the death penalty. Executions would not be allowed if the defendant suffers “intellectual disabilities.” And if a condemned inmate is pregnant, the execution would be held until the baby is born.

At the end of October’s special session, the House voted 36-30 along party lines to reinstate the death penalty, with Republicans in the majority. This followed a debate that started after midnight and ended just before 6 a.m. Many critics, including state religious leaders, blasted House leaders for holding the debate during the wee hours without any public notice. Hours later, the Senate voted to adjourn without considering the bill.

Last year was the first time that capital-punishment supporters made a serious effort to bring back the death penalty. The push came following several cases of police killings and child murders, including the rape and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens.

Democrats criticized the idea of considering the capital punishment bill during the special session, which originally was meant to deal with the state’s budget crisis. Some said it was nothing but a political ploy for Republicans to use during the general election.

If so, that plan backfired. Republicans lost control of the House after two years of being the majority. Though Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s political team was successful in bringing down Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen — who opposed the death penalty bill — the GOP suffered a net loss in the Senate.

Between 1979 and 2007, when the death penalty was an option to prosecutors, there were more than 200 death penalty cases filed, but only 15 men sentenced to death and only one execution.

Though the death penalty was repealed in 2009, two inmates who previously were convicted for murders remain on death row. They are Timothy Allen, convicted in 1995, and Robert Fry, convicted for a murder in 2000.

Source: The New Mexican, Steve Terrell, January 9-10, 2017

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