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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…

U.S.: A Wiser Generation of Prosecutors

The newly elected district attorney in Denver, Beth McCann, announced last month that her office would no longer seek the death penalty. "I don't think that the state should be in the business of killing people," she said.

In Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston and has long been one of the most execution-friendly counties in America, the new district attorney, Kim Ogg, said there would be "very few death penalty prosecutions" under her administration.

In January, the Democratic attorney general in Washington State, Bob Ferguson, proposed a bill that would ban the death penalty there. The bill is supported by the governor, Jay Inslee, a bipartisan group of legislators and, notably, by Mr. Ferguson's Republican predecessor.

These women and men are at the forefront of a new generation of local and state law-enforcement officials, most elected in 2015 and 2016, who are working to change the national conversation about the proper role of the prosecutor - one of the most powerful yet least understood jobs in the justice system.

Just a few years ago, it was political suicide for a district attorney almost anywhere to profess anything less than total allegiance to the death penalty, or to seeking the harshest punishments available in every case.

Times are changing. As capital punishment's many flaws have become impossible to ignore, its use has dwindled. The number of new death sentences and executions continues to drop - only 30 people were sentenced to death nationwide in 2016, and 20 were executed. Prosecutors aren't just seeking fewer death sentences; they're openly turning against the practice, even in places where it has traditionally been favored.

Reformist prosecutors are also changing how they handle non-capital offenses, which make up the vast majority of prosecutions. Kim Foxx, the new state's attorney in Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, ordered her prosecutors in December not to bring felony charges in shoplifting cases involving less than $1,000 of goods, which is the vast majority of cases. 

The idea is to keep more nonviolent offenders, many of whom are homeless, drug addicted or mentally ill, out of jail and steer them into treatment programs where they will be less likely to re-offend.

Prosecutors like these are especially important today. Donald Trump's blunt, hysterical "law and order" campaign distorted the reality of crime in America - invoking an apocalyptic hellscape when in fact crime remains at historic lows. Now that Mr. Trump is president, his dark vision is likely to be implemented on the federal level by his pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who as a senator has fought almost all efforts at justice reform.

In these circumstances, the best chance for continued reform lies with state and local prosecutors who are open to rethinking how they do their enormously influential jobs.

Source: The New York Times, Editorial, February 6, 2017

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