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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…

Nevada's death penalty by the numbers

Nevada's newly completed $858,000 death chamber
Nevada's newly completed $858,000 death chamber
Lawmakers are taking up a bill that would do away with executions and ensure life in prison is the harshest penalty a person can get in Nevada. 

Opponents argue that it's too expensive for a penalty that is rarely carried out, and isn't practical because the state can't even procure the drugs it needs to make a lethal injection.

But while Democratic sponsor James Ohrenschall says he's "optimistic" that the measure will garner enough support to get a vote in the committee where it received an emotionally charged hearing last week, polls show less than 1/3 of Nevada voters support abolishing capital punishment, and the Republican governor who could veto the measure has reiterated that he supports the death penalty.

Here are some things to know about capital punishment:


31 - Number of states that have the death penalty.

12 - Number of people who have been executed in Nevada since 1977, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a moratorium on the death penalty that had lasted about 5 years. Of those, 11 were volunteers who hadn't exhausted their appeals but voluntarily resigned to their executions. The 1 involuntary execution was of Richard Moran, a defendant who hadn't exhausted all his legal resources when he was initially on trial for 3 murders - he discharged his lawyers and changed his pleas to guilty before he was sentenced to death.

81 - Number of Nevadans currently on death row. The latest addition was 24-year-old Javier Righetti, who was sentenced to death in Clark County on March 21 for the murder of 15-year-old Alyssa Otremba in 2011. He is now the youngest person on death row. Otremba's mother submitted testimony last week supporting capital punishment.

0 - Death row inmates in Nevada who have exhausted their appeals and are immediately eligible for execution. 1 inmate, Scott Dozier, is trying to volunteer for execution.

160 - Total number of people sentenced to death in Nevada since 1977. There have been 186 death sentences handed down in that time period - the discrepancy comes because some defendants are sentenced to death more than once, such as after a prior sentence reversal.

46.6 - Percentage of total Nevada death sentences that are reversed in a state or federal court. Someone who has their death sentence reversed could potentially get the same sentence again once the courts re-do the trial or the penalty phase.

31.2 - Percentage of Nevada cases in which an inmate is permanently taken off death row because of a reversal or a vacated conviction or penalty. One example of a vacated conviction is the case of Michael Domingues, who was convicted of committing a double murder when he was 16 years old. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 - 12 years after the killings - barred states from executing people for crimes they committed while they were younger than 18.

1924 - The 1st time Nevada executed a prisoner by lethal gas. The state was the 1st in the world to legalize the so-called "Humane Death" method and employed it at Nevada State Prison in Carson City until 1979. Prior to that, people in Nevada were executed by hanging or firing squad.

2,288 - Number of people who died by homicide in Clark County from 2002 to 2015, according to the Clark County Coroner's Office. In that time, 18 people were sentenced to death.

175 - Number of instances in which Clark County has filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty since 2005, according to Clark County Public Defender Scott Coffee. Most of those cases lead to a plea deal, while about 1/3 of those that proceed to trial result in a death sentence.

36.5 - Percentage of people on death row in Nevada who are black. That compares with 47.5 % who are white and 12.1 % who are Hispanic. Nevada's total population in 2016 was 8.6 % black, 52.3 % white and 28.6 % Hispanic. Nationally, 42 % of death row inmates are black, 42 % are white and 13 % are Hispanic.

$858,000 - Amount of money the 2015 Nevada Legislature approved for a new execution chamber at Ely State Prison, which also houses Nevada's death row inmates. It was completed in late 2016 amid concerns that the old chamber, in the shuttered Nevada State Prison, was not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

247 - Number of vendors the state contacted in September 2016 in an attempt to get a supplier to replace an expired drug needed for the lethal cocktail. None submitted a bid by the deadline a month later. Numerous pharmaceutical companies have publicly opposed the use of their products for lethal injections. While the state is effectively unable to carry out executions, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who supports keeping the death penalty, said he's confident after talking with Nevada prisons officials that there would be a way forward if the need arose. Asked about whether the state could carry out capital punishment, Nevada Department of Corrections spokeswoman Brooke Keast said Wednesday that "we are researching our options. I have no details beyond that." One option for obtaining drugs if an order comes down, NDOC director James Dzurenda told KTNV, is asking other states to use drugs that they don't anticipate using.

$1.3 million - Estimated cost of a Nevada case in which the death penalty is sought and an inmate is sentenced to death, but not executed, according to a 2014 analysis from the Legislative Counsel Bureau. That includes incarceration costs. District attorneys pushed back on the LCB's findings in a Wednesday hearing, saying their offices absorb death penalty cases into their regular budgets and don't seek out extra money from counties to carry out such cases. They also said, and the LCB acknowledged in its audit, that it was difficult to accurately determine the amount of staff time that went into a specific death penalty case because work hours are often not recorded like that.

$1.03 million - Estimated cost of a Nevada case in which the death penalty is sought, an inmate is sentenced to death and an execution is carried out.

$775,000 - Estimated cost of a Nevada murder case in which the death penalty is not sought, according to the LCB analysis. That includes incarceration.

67 - Percentage of Nevadans who support keeping the death penalty, according to a Nevada Independent poll from January. Just 27 % oppose having capital punishment, and 7 % were unsure.

0 - Level of support that veto power-wielding Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has expressed for attempts to abolish the death penalty. "The Governor has historically supported the death penalty for criminals who have committed the worst crimes," his office said in a statement Wednesday. "He trusts the state's judicial system to determine a punishment that is equal to the crime and does not support an attempt to abolish the death penalty."

Source: The Nevada Independent, April 3, 2017

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