Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Gov. Kasich, heed Ohio Parole Board and don't execute William Montgomery

William Montgomery
William Montgomery, 52, is slated to die on Ohio’s lethal injection gurney on April 11 for the March 8, 1986, robbery-motivated killing of Debra Ogle. 

The families of murder victims deserve the truth about what happened to our loved ones. We want the offenders punished, but we certainly don't want the wrong persons held accountable. Unless Gov. John Kasich acts on the recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board to not execute William Montgomery, that horrifically unfortunate scenario could become an unintended outcome of Ohio's next scheduled execution on April 11.

Montgomery was sentenced to be killed for his "alleged" murder of Debra Ogle. He also received a life sentence for his "alleged" killing of Cynthia Tincher. "Alleged," because there is simply too much doubt about whether Montgomery is actually their killer, as the Ohio Parole Board acknowledged Friday in voting 6-4 to recommend clemency in the case.

I know how painful it is to lose a loved one to murder, and how urgently one wants to have a resolution to the crime. My beloved sister Jennifer was 21 years old in 1997 when she was killed in her Cleveland home, which she shared with her 2-year-old daughter, Imani. Her murder remains unsolved. I learned of Jennifer's death while attending a church convention in Colorado. I rushed home, joined my sister Theresa in planning Jennifer's funeral, and began the process of carefully weaving Imani into the fabric of my household.

Immediately, and in the years following Jennifer's death, my family received tremendous spiritual and moral support from church leaders, congregants, family members and friends. We could not have gone very far as a family without those networks of care and compassion.

However, we experienced little attentiveness from law enforcement, social services, and the state of Ohio. Just days after Jennifer's funeral, I applied to the Ohio victims' assistance fund, believing that officials there would at least offer assistance to Jennifer's daughter. That was in 1997. Except for letters of acknowledgement, I have yet to receive any reply of substance.

It is with this set of experiences in mind that I grow more concerned every time I hear politicians say that victim family members need executions in order to heal. Capital punishment is so infrequent that what they are really saying to most of us is that our loved ones were not valuable enough to them. Despite thousands of murders since Ohio enacted its death penalty statute in 1981, only 55 killers have been put to death. For the precious few where death is the sentence, victim families are putting their healing process on hold for a very long time.

One of many the reasons I oppose executions is because of the false promises they present to victim families. As happened when Kasich temporarily reprieved a man scheduled for execution in February to allow a further review of the case, the rug can get pulled out from under you just days before the moment you have been waiting for.

Gov. John Kasich has pushed back the execution date for Raymond Tibbetts so the Ohio Parole Board can consider a juror's concerns about Tibbetts' trial.

In November, the victim's family was in the witness room when the execution was called off.

In both cases the families had been waiting more than 20 years.

Ohio Governor John Kasich
Ohio currently has 26 men with execution dates extending into 2023. By the time of their executions, five will have been on death row between 15 and 20 years. Eleven will have been there more than 20 years, and ten will have been there more than 30 years. Turning that around, that's how many years victim family members in those cases have had to wait for their so-called justice, and to begin healing.

Yes, that's absolutely unacceptable. Some say speed up executions, but then we run the risk of wrongful executions. Thirteen Ohioans who faced death at trial have been exonerated and freed. Four were released from life sentences, and nine after having been condemned to death, all for crimes they did not commit. For many, it was after decades on death row or in prison.

We can do better for Ohio's murder victim family members without executions, and we must. Most urgently, we must call on Governor Kasich to stop the next execution because we may be killing an innocent man.

William T. Montgomery has been on Ohio's death row for more than 31 years. He has always maintained his innocence. I don't know if he is innocent or guilty, but there is no credible physical evidence tying Mr. Montgomery to these murders. Facts in the case point to other suspects. Google his name or visit OTSE.org for the details, but know this: No court has ever considered the totality of the evidence existing today - much of which was hidden by prosecutors and came to light years after the trial ended.

It is possible this man is actually innocent. With so much doubt, we cannot let this execution go forward. Only by giving Mr. Montgomery the new and fair trial that 6 federal judges have said he should have can we make sure the right person is being punished and truly do justice for the victims and their families.

➧ NB: DPN opposes the death penalty in all cases, unconditionally, whether the condemned person is guilty or innocent, and  regardless of the method chosen to kill the condemned prisoner. The death penalty diverts resources that could be better used to work against violent crime and assist those affected by it. It prolongs the suffering of the murder victim's family and extends that suffering to the loved ones of the condemned prisoner. 

Source: cleveland.com, Opinion, Dr. Jack Sullivan Jr., March 21, 2018. The Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan Jr. grew up in Cleveland. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, where he serves as senior pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He also serves as chairperson of Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE.org), a statewide organization.

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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