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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…

Texas: Tilon Carter set for execution - again

Recreation yard, Polunsky Unit. Texas
Recreation yard, Polunsky Unit. Click here to see recent photographs
of the living conditions of confinement on Texas' Death Row.
For the 2nd time this year, Tilon Carter faces execution - this time, he's set for Huntsville's gurney next Tuesday, May 16. 

Carter was convicted of capital murder in 2006 in Tarrant County, for the robbery and suffocation of 89-year-old James Eldon Tomlin. 

He received a stay in January based on a technicality involving the filing of his death warrant, so the Court of Criminal Appeals ordered the lower court to reset Carter's execution date. 

Carter has exhausted his appeals, but maintains that Tomlin's death was accidental. Robin Norris, his attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.

The resetting of execution dates combined with last-minute stays is one of several injustices highlighted in "Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas' Death Row," a recent report from the Human Rights Clinic at the UT School of Law. 

The yearlong study focused on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's repeated resetting of execution dates, inmates' limited access to religious services, and - most significantly - the Polunsky Unit's use of solitary confinement.

Texas has been dubbed the Capital of Capital Punishment. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the state has executed 542 people. (Carter would bump that to 543.) Oklahoma and Virginia have the 2nd and 3rd most deadly death rows, each with 112 executions. 

Texas' death row inmates spend 22-24 hours a day in solitary. Though the TDCJ allows inmates up to 2 hours of "recreation" time daily, the report notes: "In practice, death row inmates often do not receive outdoor [time]." And even outside, the so-called "yard" is a slightly larger cell closed off by high concrete walls and caging over the top, which limits natural light. It's typical for death row inmates to spend more than a decade living in these conditions prior to their execution.

Mandatory confinement has been required since the men's death row was transferred from Huntsville to the Polunsky Unit in nearby West Livingston in 1999.  All human contact has been banned as well. 

"Window" of a typical Polunsky Unit death row cell.
"Window" of a typical Polunsky Unit death row cell.
The TDCJ's severe use of solitary and isolation has been called inhumane by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Organization of American States, and the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The UT report states the use of solitary, to such a degree, is incredibly detrimental to inmates' mental health - most noticeably those already suffering from mental illness.

In what is dubbed "death row syndrome," prisoners report experiencing severe depression, memory loss, suicidal tendencies, and more. The study summarizes, they're "effectively subject to a severe form of psychological torture every day of their lives."

Asked for a response to the study, Jason Clark, the TDCJ's director of public information, told us: "Offenders on death row are individuals who've been convicted of heinous crimes and given the harshest sentence possible under the law. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will continue to ensure it fulfills its mission of public safety and house death row offenders appropriately."

According to Ariel Dulitzky, a UT Law professor and the director of the Human Rights Clinic, TDCJ declined to meet with the clinic over the course of the study, and has yet to respond to a follow-up request made earlier this month. However, Dulitzky said the clinic hopes this report will secure a "complete ban" of mandatory solitary confinement. 

In the interim, the clinic is advocating for the prohibition of confinement for all inmates with mental health problems, for the implementation of "physical contact visits with families and attorneys, communal religious services," and for improvements to health care.

Source: Austin Chronicle, May 11, 2017

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