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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…

Death penalty ban to be considered by Louisiana Legislature

Louisiana State Penitentiary
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Three legislators have introduced bills to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana. All 3 have have experience with the criminal justice system: Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge worked as a prosecutor in New Orleans, Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, as State Police superintendent under Gov. Mike Foster and Rep. Steven Pylant, R-Winnsboro as Franklin Parish sheriff.

Claitor and Landry said their views on the death penalty had changed over time. Claitor said his Roman Catholic faith is a major factor in why he changed his mind, but he is also concerned that the death penalty is expensive and not effective. "I definitely expect support from the Catholic Church," he said.

The Louisiana House will take up legislation that seeks to get more money into the hands of local public defender offices -- primarily by taking it from the defense teams representing people facing the death penalty.

As head of the State Police, Landry was deeply involved in the investigation into Derrick Todd Lee, who was linked to the deaths of 7 women in south Louisiana, convicted and sentenced to death. Lee died in early 2016 of heart problems while awaiting execution. Landry mentions his involvement in investigating Lee's case on his legislative website.

Still, Landry said he now questions whether the death penalty makes Louisiana safer. He is also concerned about the cost. "I've evolved to where I am today," he said. "I think it may be a process that is past its time."

Claitor has filed Senate Bill 142 to abolish the death penalty for people who commit crimes after July 30. Landry and Steven Pylant have filed House Bill 101, essentially the same legislation. The legislative session begins April 10.

The class-action suit filed in Baton Rouge seeks an injunction against a public defenders system that it says fails to provide constitutionally adequate representation.

Neither measure would affect the 73 Louisiana inmates already on death row or those facing capital charges in pending court cases. Claitor said he didn't think it was appropriate to change sentences retroactively or to alter pending court cases. But if the legislation passes, it could be brought up by legal teams defending death row inmates in continuing cases as a reason to change their sentences.

Louisiana already spends millions of dollars in court to pay defense costs for death penalty cases. The Louisiana Public Defender Board spent $9.5 million on death penalty defense in the fiscal year that ended June 30, about 28 % of the board's total budget.

That means the board wasn't able to devote as much money -- about $15 million overall last year -- to local public defender offices, since the two causes compete for funding. Public defenders offices around the state say they are chronically underfunded, so much so that Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state public defender board are being sued by 13 inmates for providing inadequate funding for indigent defense.

The Public Defender Board's $9.5 million death penalty fund was paying for the defense in 30 to 40 capital cases last year. The board contracts with private lawyers, many of whom work at non-profit agencies, to provide the services. The legal work is notoriously time-consuming and expensive.

Louisiana hasn't executed anyone since 2010, in part because of difficulty in obtaining the drugs for lethal injection. By contrast, Alabama and Mississippi have executed 8 people since 2011, according to those states' corrections agencies.

Pharmacies and drug makers have been unwilling to carry execution drugs because of the stigma attached to selling them. The Legislature almost passed a bill in 2014 to make it easier to acquire lethal injection drugs, in part by letting the state hide the identity of the provider, but the legislation was pulled by its sponsor at the last minute. A similar bill hasn't been filed since then.

Louisiana's death penalty protocol calls for the use of the same 2 drugs as those administered during a botched execution in Arizona Wednesday. This is the 3rd case in 6 months where one of the particular death penalty drugs Louisiana is scheduled to use -- midazolam -- has resulted in a bungled execution in another state.

Source: nola.com, Julia O'Donoghue, April 4, 2017. Julia O'Donoghue is a state politics reporter based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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