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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 Gov. Kay Ivey signs bill to shorten time of death penalty appeals

Gov. Kay Ivey Friday signed a bill that would shorten the death penalty appeals process in Alabama.

Ivey signed the legislation early Friday afternoon, according to her office. Both supporters and opponents of the bill agreed that it would cut the time in the death penalty appeals process.

But proponents said it would ensure the swifter enactment of justice, while opponents said it would make it more likely Alabama would execute innocent people.

The signing came less than 24 hours after the state executed Thomas Arthur for the 1982 murder of businessman Troy Wicker. Ivey’s office said Friday the timing was a coincidence.

Inmates condemned to death have two rounds of state appeals. The first one is a direct appeal, based on the facts of the case. The second, known as a Rule 32 appeal, allows the inmate to raise post-conviction issues, such as them competence of his or her defense attorney. Under the new law, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the two appeals would run parallel to each other.

The inmate would have a year from the filing of the brief in their direct appeal to file a Rule 32 motion. The circuit court would have 90 days to dismiss claims or set them for hearing.

The legislation would not affect an inmate's federal appeals. Appeals of capital sentences can take decades. Arthur was first sentenced to death in 1983 and sentenced again after two further trials in 1992. He outlived seven death sentences before his execution Thursday night.

The Alabama attorney general’s office long sought the change. In a statement Friday afternoon, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the bill stemmed from work between the attorney general’s office, prosecutors, victims’ groups and the Legislature.

“Our collective experiences with capital cases compelled us to pursue an improved appeals process for our state—one that is fairer, more efficient, and does not prolong the suffering of victims, but provides justice to all parties,” the statement said.

The legislation drew criticism from the American Bar Association and anti-death penalty groups, who said it could create situations where an inmate would have to challenge the competence of an attorney at the same time the attorney is defending them on direct appeal. ABA President Linda Klein wrote a letter to legislative leaders in early May, asking them to oppose the legislation.

“While the ABA respects the importance of finality and judicial efficiency, quicker resolution of cases where a life is at stake should not take priority over ensuring the fundamental fairness and accuracy of those convictions,” the letter said.

Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, which opposed the bill, said it would "create all kinds of problems" for post-conviction attorneys trying to investigate claims of inadequate counsel.

"We were very optimistic when (Ivey) signed the (judicial) override bill that we were moving in a direction ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process," he said. "This takes us in the opposite direction."

The Alabama Department of Corrections says as of Friday there were 183 people on death row – 178 men and five women. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group, the number of death sentences handed down in Alabama fell from 25 in 1998 to six in 2015.

Source: Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman, May 26, 2017

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