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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…

Luck and the Death Penalty

Anatomy of Innocence
In 2002, the playwright Arthur Miller wrote the brief essay below to help the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern's law school in its campaign to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. In it, Miller described the case of Peter Reilly, a teenager who was convicted in 1974 of brutally killing his mother. The essay, previously unpublished, is featured in a new anthology, "Anatomy of Innocence," which features the testimony of several wrongfully convicted people - some of their stories written for the book by Lee Child, Sara Paretsky and other high-profile authors.

It is a small town so everybody knew the boy. He was approaching eighteen but he was slight, blond and soft-spoken so he was referred to as a boy. His mildness made it hard for many to believe that he had butchered his mother even after the State Police announced that he had made a confession. In fact, the longer his trial went on, the fewer the folks who felt convinced of his guilt.

Still, strange things do happen and he was convicted and was actually in a car on his way to the State Penitentiary when a group of residents raised enough money - some even mortgaging their homes - to lodge an appeal, and he was returned to the local jail. Basically a conservative community, many people there had rather unwillingly come to believe that the confession had somehow been forced out of him by the police.

At the hearing to decide whether to give him a new trial, things did not look good; the 2nd judge seemed a fair and sympathetic listener but the defense, now under a new lawyer, was required to produce new evidence, not easy to get hold of. But several days into the hearing the state's attorney who had gotten the boy convicted dropped dead on a golf course and a substitute prosecutor immediately took his place and began studying his papers on the case.

In the files the substitute discovered an affidavit from a witness who swore that he and his wife had seen the boy in another part of town at the very moment his mother was being attacked and killed. This affidavit had been withheld from evidence, never introduced into the original trial despite the witness being a policeman who had known the boy and had not the slightest doubt that he had recognized him. Introduced into the hearing the very next morning, the affidavit blew the state's case out of the water and the boy was freed.

If the state of Connecticut had had a death penalty, the boy may well have been executed. The boy's mother had been nearly eviscerated, savagely mauled, and feelings of disgust and anger were aroused. Indeed, it was only the adventitious death of the prosecutor that saved the boy from a long sentence in a penitentiary that would probably have destroyed him, gentle and mild as he was. Connecticut is not normally considered a benighted state but one with a very high income level, and a large proportion of educated people. Yet this travesty happened there.

Any honest supporter of the death penalty simply cannot avoid facing the high probability of mistaken verdicts, of which there are indeed many in this country. The nation's conscience forbids the state to kill innocent people. The death penalty makes the presumption that there are never going to be corrupt, ambitious, cowardly prosecutors and police who, afraid to admit they were wrong in arresting a suspect, go down to the end insisting on his guilt; that there are never honest mistakes in judgment, never any visual misidentifications, but that in each and every prosecution the guilty verdict is invariably deserved.

The boy, Peter Reilly, regained his freedom in Litchfield County because a prosecutor died at the propitious time and because his neighbors believed in him, and outsiders were moved to come to his aid. The life of the innocent cannot be allowed to depend on that much luck nor the states dishonored by pretensions of infallibility in absolutely every capital case that comes before its all but overwhelmed courts.

Source: New York Times, March 28, 2017

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