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Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Jack O'Connell and Laura Dern to star in Trial By Fire

Jack O'Connell
Jack O'Connell
Jack O'Connell and Laura Dern have joined the cast of 'Trial By Fire'.

The 27-year-old 'Money Monster' actor is expected to play death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of the arson deaths of his own three children, while Dern, 50, will play Elizabeth Gilbert, a Texan housewife who sets out to get him released as she believes he has been falsely convicted.

The fact-based drama is being directed by Ed Zwick, who will also produce alongside Allyn Stewart & Kipp Nelson, and Alex Soros.

The filmmaker became fascinated by the tale when he first read David Gann's Polk Award-winning 2009 article in The New Yorker. (See below)

Zwick told Deadline: "From the moment I read David's brilliant reporting eight years ago, I have been possessed by this deeply moving, true story of injustice.

"David Grann has been one of these caught-in-the-roller-of-his-typewriter guys, quietly doing great work, and now all these wonderful things are happening with his stories being made into movies, from 'Killers of the Flower Moon' to the Robert Redford piece 'Old Man and the Gun'.

"The story was all there, with these two compelling characters. It is a remarkable story about people. Not just capital punishment but justice, which is a very important word right now. It has to have that pull to keep you pushing it up the hill this many years."

He also explained how it had been a struggle to get the movie together but is glad he kept pushing on with the project.

He said: "You've heard the story at the end of the year from everyone who gets up on that podium and talks about how hard it is.

"The good ones just take longer. I've been lucky enough to make movies I care about, and they become increasingly smaller targets that you hit at greater distances.

"Every year a couple manage to get through that crucible, but it's harder and harder. We got close a couple of times, but it came down to not being able to get the right actor or financier."

Production is set to start on October 2 in Atlanta.

Source: EAC, August 9, 2017


Trial by Fire - Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?


Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row, in 1994.
Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row, in 1994.
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 Diane raced down the street to get help he found a stick and broke the children’s bedroom window. Fire lashed through the hole. He broke another window; flames burst through it, too, and he retreated into the yard, kneeling in front of the house. A neighbor later told police that Willingham intermittently cried, “My babies!” then fell silent, as if he had “blocked the fire out of his mind.”

Diane Barbee, returning to the scene, could feel intense heat radiating off the house. Moments later, the five windows of the children’s room exploded and flames “blew out,” as Barbee put it. Within minutes, the first firemen had arrived, and Willingham approached them, shouting that his children were in their bedroom, where the flames were thickest. A fireman sent word over his radio for rescue teams to “step on it.”

More men showed up, uncoiling hoses and aiming water at the blaze. One fireman, who had an air tank strapped to his back and a mask covering his face, slipped through a window but was hit by water from a hose and had to retreat. He then charged through the front door, into a swirl of smoke and fire. Heading down the main corridor, he reached the kitchen, where he saw a refrigerator blocking the back door.

Todd Willingham, looking on, appeared to grow more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck and tried to calm him down. Willingham explained that his wife, Stacy, had gone out earlier that morning, and that he had been jolted from sleep by Amber screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!”

“My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,” he said, adding, “I couldn’t get my babies out.”

While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, cradling Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, who was twenty-three years old and powerfully built, ran to see her, then suddenly headed toward the babies’ room. Monaghan and another man restrained him. “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection,” Monaghan later told police. “I received a black eye.” One of the first firemen at the scene told investigators that, at an earlier point, he had also held Willingham back. “Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to try and go into the house,” he said.

Willingham was taken to a hospital, where he was told that Amber—who had actually been found in the master bedroom—had died of smoke inhalation. Kameron and Karmon had been lying on the floor of the children’s bedroom, their bodies severely burned. According to the medical examiner, they, too, died from smoke inhalation.

The exterior of the Willingham home after the fire.
The exterior of the Willingham home after the fire.
News of the tragedy, which took place on December 23, 1991, spread through Corsicana. A small city fifty-five miles northeast of Waco, it had once been the center of Texas’s first oil boom, but many of the wells had since dried up, and more than a quarter of the city’s twenty thousand inhabitants had fallen into poverty. Several stores along the main street were shuttered, giving the place the feel of an abandoned outpost.

Willingham and his wife, who was twenty-two years old, had virtually no money. Stacy worked in her brother’s bar, called Some Other Place, and Willingham, an unemployed auto mechanic, had been caring for the kids. The community took up a collection to help the Willinghams pay for funeral arrangements.

Fire investigators, meanwhile, tried to determine the cause of the blaze. (Willingham gave authorities permission to search the house: “I know we might not ever know all the answers, but I’d just like to know why my babies were taken from me.”) Douglas Fogg, who was then the assistant fire chief in Corsicana, conducted the initial inspection. He was tall, with a crew cut, and his voice was raspy from years of inhaling smoke from fires and cigarettes. He had grown up in Corsicana and, after graduating from high school, in 1963, he had joined the Navy, serving as a medic in Vietnam, where he was wounded on four occasions. He was awarded a Purple Heart each time. After he returned from Vietnam, he became a firefighter, and by the time of the Willingham blaze he had been battling fire—or what he calls “the beast”—for more than twenty years, and had become a certified arson investigator. “You learn that fire talks to you,” he told me.

He was soon joined on the case by one of the state’s leading arson sleuths, a deputy fire marshal named Manuel Vasquez, who has since died. Short, with a paunch, Vasquez had investigated more than twelve hundred fires. Arson investigators have always been considered a special breed of detective. In the 1991 movie “Backdraft,” a heroic arson investigator says of fire, “It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling.” Vasquez, who had previously worked in Army intelligence, had several maxims of his own. One was “Fire does not destroy evidence—it creates it.” Another was “The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” He cultivated a Sherlock Holmes-like aura of invincibility. Once, he was asked under oath whether he had ever been mistaken in a case. “If I have, sir, I don’t know,” he responded. “It’s never been pointed out.”

Vasquez and Fogg visited the Willinghams’ house four days after the blaze. Following protocol, they moved from the least burned areas toward the most damaged ones. “It is a systematic method,” Vasquez later testified, adding, “I’m just collecting information. . . . I have not made any determination. I don’t have any preconceived idea.”


Source: The New Yorker, David Grann, September 7, 2009 Issue

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