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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…

Texas executes Christopher Wilkins

Christopher Wilkins
Christopher Wilkins
A Fort Worth jury sent Christopher Wilkins to death row for killing 2 men he admitted shooting over a $20 phony drug deal after Wilkins said he didn't care whether he was sentenced to death.

"Look, it is no big deal," Wilkins calmly said from the witness stand at his 2008 trial.

On Wednesday, more than 11 years after the killings, the 48-year-old Wilkins was put to death by lethal injection at The Walls Unit, in Huntsville, Texas.

Christopher Wilkins was pronounced dead at 6:29 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to block the execution. The court's ruling on appeals for Wilkins came about three hours before his scheduled lethal injection.

Wilkins' attorneys had argued to the Supreme Court that he had poor legal help at his trial and during earlier appeals. State attorneys argued courts had rejected similar appeals and that defense lawyers were simply employing delaying tactics.

Wilkins' execution is the nation's first this year.

In 2005, after serving time in prison for gun possession, Wilkins drove a stolen truck to Fort Worth, where police tied him to several aggravated assaults and burglaries. There he befriended 2 men, 40-year-old Willie Freeman and 33-year-old Mike Silva, who duped him into paying $20 for a piece of gravel he thought was a rock of crack cocaine.

According to court records, Wilkins said he shot Freeman on Oct. 28, 2005, for laughing about the scam, then he shot Silva because he was there.

Their bodies were found in a ditch. Wilkins' fingerprints were found in Silva's wrecked SUV, and a pentagram matching one of Wilkins' numerous tattoos had been carved into the hood.

"When I get wound up, I have a fuse that is short," Wilkins testified. "I don't think about what I am doing."

He also admitted that a day earlier he had shot and killed another man, Gilbert Vallejo, 47, outside a Fort Worth bar in a dispute over a pay phone, and about a week later he used a stolen car to try to run down 2 people because he believed 1 of them had taken his sunglasses.

"I know they are bad decisions," Wilkins said of his actions. "I make them anyway."

"I think subconsciously, I've been trying to kill myself or get myself killed since I was probably 12 or 13 years old," he added. 

Kevin Rousseau, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney, described Wilkins as "a professional criminal. Very violent. He used violence as a means of achieve his means on a routine basis."

Wilkins' attorneys had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution, saying he had poor legal help at trial and during other appeals, and that the courts should have authorized money to his current lawyer to support other appeals and a clemency petition.

"He has never had a meaningful opportunity at any stage to develop that claim, to have any court address it on the merits, or even to have it considered as part of a petition for executive clemency," attorney Seth Waxman, told the justices in his appeal.

Stephen Hoffman, an assistant Texas attorney general, said investigation of those arguments "would either be redundant or fruitless," and called the appeals a delaying tactic.

In his appeals, Wilkins had argued that his attorney ignored his wish to plead guilty and did not put on a vigorous defense and that an appellate lawyer had a huge conflict of interest, having already accepted a job with the prosecutor's office. 

30 convicted killers were executed in the U.S. last year, the lowest number since the early 1980s. 7 were carried out last year in Texas, the fewest since 1996.

9 Texas inmates have already been scheduled to die in the early months of 2017.

Wilkins becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Texas  and the 539th overall since the state resumed capital punishment on December 7, 1982.

Wilkins becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1443rd overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977. 

Sources: Dallas Morning News, Associated Press, Twitter live feed, Rick Halperin, January 11, 2017

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