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…

Nevada lawmakers say the death penalty is a 'colossal waste of money'

Nevada's newly completed $840,000 death chamber
Nevada's newly completed $840,000 death chamber
Nevada lawmakers want to abolish the death penalty because of concerns over costs, sparking opposition from prosecutors and some victims' families. 

Nevada is among 32 states that allow death as a sentencing option. But no inmate has been executed since 2006 and none likely will be any time soon as the state struggles to replenish its supply of execution drugs. 

Assemblyman James Ohrenschall and state Sen. Tick Segerblom, both Democrats, proposed Assembly Bill 237 in late February. The bill would end capital punishment and leave life without the possibility of parole as the state's strongest punishment. 

"We believe the death penalty isn't effective, it isn't a deterrent," Segerblom said. "It's a colossal waste of money, and more importantly, no one is ever going to be executed given the delays from appeals and other things. 

"It's a punishment that's meaningless, but it's costing us a fortune." 

'We're spending millions of dollars' 

In 2013, state legislators passed a bill mandating a study of the costs associated with the death penalty. 

An audit report the following year found that the death penalty process, from the arrest to the end of incarceration, costs about $532,000 more than non-death penalty cases. Most of those costs come from the trial and appeal process. 

A death penalty case costs about $1.3 million for a defendant who is sentenced to death but isn't executed. That includes trial, appeal and incarceration costs. If the defendant is executed, then the costs are less. 

Cases where prosecutors don't seek the death penalty cost about $775,000, the report said. 

The report was based on 28 cases from 2000 to 2012 in Washoe and Clark counties. 

"I know there's a lot of people that are sitting on death row in (Ely State Prison), which is a very expensive place to incarcerate people," Segerblom said. "And they have to each sit in an individual cell." 

Currently, there are 82 death row inmates, according to the Nevada Department of Corrections. But the state has only executed 12 prisoners since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. 

A bill in the 1977 Legislative Session brought Nevada's death penalty laws in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court guidelines, the report said. 

The state also recently spent close to $900,000 creating a new execution chamber at Ely State Prison after its old chamber in Carson City fell out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

But even with an up-to-date execution chamber, the state is unable to carry out capital punishment.

1 of the 2 drugs needed to create the lethal injection expired. The state has since been unable to find a company willing to restock its supply. 

"We've tried this over the years," Segerblom said of the bill. "It's very difficult. (The bill) can be pulled. Most of the cities support the death penalty, and they don't fully appreciate the costs involved." 

"It's one of those issues that you have to keep bringing it back and trying to explain to voters the reality, which is that it's not something that's going to happen (soon)," he said, referring to death penalty executions. "And yet we're spending millions of dollars that we could be using for educating kids or for giving reparations to crime victims or something beneficial as opposed to pouring it down a rat hole." 

'Cost is frankly a poor argument' 

Support for the death penalty has fallen in the past 2 decades, but Americans still favor the death penalty more than they oppose it, according to a 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center. 

The poll found that 49 % favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, and 42 % oppose it. 

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks said he believes the system is broken. 

"I think cost is frankly a poor argument," Hicks said. "Really, the important discussion to have over the death penalty is: Does our society believe in it?" 

Most of the state's death penalty cases come from Clark County, said Hicks, who is also president of Nevada District Attorneys Association. 

"My office uses the death penalty very sparingly and judiciously," Hicks said. "We reserve it for the very worst offenders. And in the last 10 years, we have only sought the death penalty 2 times, although we have likely prosecuted close to 100 if not more homicides in that time." 

One of those cases involved Tamir Hamilton, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Holly Quick in 2006. 

The other involved James Biela, who was convicted for the rape and murder of 19-year-old college student Brianna Denison. Biela was sentenced to death in 2010 plus 4 consecutive life terms in prison for the rape of 2 other women. 

In 2015, he filed a motion for a new trial after he exhausted appeals for his conviction. He alleged he had ineffective counseling during his 2010 trial, but he was denied a new trial. 

His defense attorney previously said the case could go to federal court. 

"It's really, in my opinion, alarming how many judicial reviews an inmate gets," Hicks said. "Most people think he's convicted and the Supreme Court looks at it and either affirms it or reverses it and that's it." 

Source: Reno Gazette-Journal, March 29, 2017

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