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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…

Alabama: 'Fair Justice Act' is anything but

Alabama's death row
Alabama's death row
Appointed Feb. 13 by ousted “Love Gov” and misdemeanant Robert Bentley, Alabama’s Attorney General Steven Marshall is new on the job.

This could, in theory, be one reason Marshall is taking to Twitter, Facebook and Alabama’s news media to drum up support for the so-called “Fair Justice Act.” He promises the proposed law will speed the state’s executions by hacksawing the amount of time already overwhelmed and underfunded death penalty attorneys have to effectively represent their clients.

Vociferous in his support of the “Fair Justice Act” – a bill there’s nothing fair about – it’s notable and unacceptable that AG Marshall has yet to make any public statement explaining the horrible circumstances of Alabama’s last execution – the horrendously botched execution of Ronald Bert Smith on Dec. 8; Mr. Smith endured a thirteen-minute death-rattle as lethal injection chemicals ravaged his insides – when he was supposed to be unconscious – heaving, coughing, clenching his fists, moving his lips and opening his left eye.

Smith’s grisly torture followed Alabama’s January 2016 execution of Christopher Brooks, an execution where questions remain whether, like Smith’s patently brutal and violent poisoning, Brooks too was not properly anesthetized and then burned alive from the inside with caustic chemicals. Other than opaque and blanket denials in court filings, AG Marshall has thus far adopted the same officious silence on the possibility Alabama tortured Brooks to death – just as it did Smith.

Conscientious Alabamians can’t let Marshall get away with it.

Conscientious, justice-loving Alabamians who want to ameliorate Alabama’s long, dark history of capital punishment – and its reputation around the world for human and civil rights abuses – must demand Marshall investigate and publicly address the circumstances of both Smith and Brooks’ deaths.

Conscientious, justice-loving Alabamians should harangue Marshall and the Fair Justice Act’s legislative sponsor, state senator Cam Ward, to answer: Why are you pushing a poorly drafted, unstudied, confusing new death penalty law to speed up executions? Why are you doing it right now – when all available evidence shows the last two executions in Alabama went horribly wrong?

Moreover, although the current version of the bill under consideration by the House of Representatives provides a meager 365 days (provided for by current law) instead of the disastrous proposal of chopping it to 180 days for the filing of postconviction motions – the shortened time period the bill would impose is still way too short for even the best, most committed, most hard-working lawyers to effectively investigate and litigate motions for death-sentenced clients in Alabama.

That’s because of yet another one of the Fair Justice Acts’ proposed time-accelerators for the filing of these complex Last Chance Not to Be Executed (Tortured) Despite Your Constitutional Rights Having Been Violated-type motions – motions advancing claims of juror misconduct or that the defense lawyer was a train wreck – not infrequent occurrences in capital cases in Alabama.

This additional cockamamie time-accelerator in The Fair Justice Act was deconstructed at the end of last week in a cogent oped by Birmingham attorney, Lisa Borden. Borden writes how the bill “would require persons convicted of capital offenses to pursue post-conviction legal claims at the same time the direct appeals from their convictions are being considered.”

Mincing no words, Borden waves the red flag of warning at all folks who care about the Constitution and preventing injustice in Alabama, opining that this “proposal is neither fair nor just, and [it] will only increase the already substantial likelihood that Alabama will execute a wrongfully convicted person ... [It] take[s] a long time to untangle the convoluted mess that is created by Alabama’s haphazard rush to send poor people to their deaths.”

Conscientious Alabamians concerned that, like Ray Hinton, freed after a hellacious 30 years on Alabama’s death row proclaiming his innocence, additional innocents might be unjustly thrust towards terrible and inhumane deaths – without an adequate chance to prove their innocence and/or that their constitutional rights were violated – you need to speak up. You need to speak up now!

Demand that instead of potentially innocent, unfairly convicted poor Alabamians, that it be this unprincipled, unconstitutional, blood-thirsty Fair Justice Act that’s killed.

And killed fast.

Source: Montgomery Advertiser, Stephen Cooper, April 24, 2017. Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq.


I was released from death row. Under the Fair Justice Act, I'd be dead.


Anthony Ray Hinton
Anthony Ray Hinton
By Anthony Ray Hinton, Alabama death row survivor and a community educator with the Equal Justice Initiative

I spent 30 years on Alabama's death row for a crime I did not commit. If proposed changes to Alabama's postconviction procedures under consideration by the state legislature had been enacted, I would have been executed despite my innocence.

I was wrongly convicted of two murders that took place in Jefferson County in 1985. Contrary to an inaccurate op-ed published by the Attorney General this week, there were no eyewitnesses to these crimes. I was convicted solely on the State's assertion that a gun in my mother's home was the weapon used to commit these two murders. Because my appointed lawyer failed to get adequate expert assistance to prove that the prosecutor's claims about this weapon were false, I was convicted and sentenced to death.

Death row prisoners face enormous challenges in finding lawyers who will assist them. State law in Alabama limits compensation to lawyers to $1500 for this kind of representation and lawyers are unwilling to take on complex cases that will last years for that kind of pay. For 14 years, I could not find volunteer lawyers capable of providing the legal assistance I needed to prove my innocence.

Because the so called "Fair Justice Act" now pending before the state legislature puts time restrictions on how long death row prisoners have to prove their innocence or a wrongful conviction, this legislation increases the risk of executing innocent people and makes our system even less fair.

In my case, I was able to finally get the legal assistance I needed in 1999 when lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative got some of the nation's best firearm experts to test the weapon in my case and examine the bullets recovered from the crime scene. These experts had all agreed that there was no match between my mother's gun and the crime evidence and no basis for convicting me of these murders. Instead of the State conducting it's own tests as my lawyers requested, I spent another 16 years on death row because the Attorney General's office refused to retest the evidence even though ethical conduct for state forensic experts dictated that such testing was required.

Only after the United States Supreme Court intervened and ruled in my favor did prosecutors finally retest the evidence and confirm the results my experts had presented 16 years earlier. I was released within a week after prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against me.

No one knows the hardship created by our inefficient system more than I do, no one. We do need significant reforms in Alabama but the legislation pending before the state House of Representatives is not the right way to proceed and would almost certainly have gotten me killed. Executions are carried out in the name of the people of Alabama and we should all be concerned if we make our system less reliable and the execution of innocent people more likely.

Source: al.com, Guest Voices, April 27, 2017

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