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

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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…

Pope, in Holy Thursday prison visit, says death penalty not Christian

Pope Francis visited a prison on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of some inmates
Rome: Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 prison inmates, including two Muslims and a Buddhist, in a Holy Thursday ritual and said the death penalty should be abolished because it is neither Christian nor humane.

For the sixth year running, the pope held the ritual in an institution rather than in the splendours of the Vatican or a Rome basilica, as his predecessors did. Conservatives have criticised him for including women and non-Christians in the rite in the past.

He visited Rome's Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) jail in the centre of city, to perform the rite recalling Jesus' gesture of humility towards his 12 apostles on the night before he died.

The 12 male inmates were from Italy, the Philippines, Morocco, Moldavia, Colombia and Sierra Leone. Eight were Catholic, two were Muslim, one was an Orthodox Christian and one a Buddhist.

Francis wove the sermon of a Mass around the theme of service, saying many wars could have been avoided in history if more leaders had considered themselves servants of the people rather than commanders.

He spoke of the death penalty just before leaving the prison, a former 17th century Catholic convent that was transformed into a jail 1881.

"A punishment that is not open to hope is not Christian and not humane," he said in response to closing comments by the prison director, a woman.

"Each punishment has to be open to the horizon of hope and so the death penalty is neither Christian nor humane," he said.

Since his election in 2013, Francis has several times called for an worldwide ban on capital punishment, prompting criticism from Church conservatives, particularly in the United States.

The 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church allowed the death penalty in extreme cases for centuries, but the position began to change under the late Pope John Paul, who died in 2005.

Francis has asked that the Church's new position on the death penalty be better reflected in its universal catechism.

On Good Friday, Francis is due to lead a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession at Rome’s Colosseum. On Saturday night he leads a Easter vigil service and on Easter Sunday he delivers his twice-yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) message.

Source: Reuters, March 29, 2018


Good Friday is a time to consider what the death penalty is doing to our souls


Texas' death house, The Walls Unit, Huntsville
Good Friday always beckons us to think deeply about our role in the execution.

Word spread quickly. The crime was unspeakable. The reward for his capture was great. The government was desperate to get him off the streets. Nobody knew what he was capable of next. Considering him to be exceedingly dangerous, law enforcement planned carefully. For some time, they'd practiced and discussed the take. When the moment arrived, one of the fugitive's confidantes revealed his location. As authorities made the arrest, those closest to him pushed back. It was no use. It was as if he knew his fate.

Government officials repeatedly declared that a monster had been taken off the streets. Everyone wanted justice. Believing some level of due process was necessary to keep from giving their power over to the mob, local officials restrained themselves. Everyone knew that this was a big one. Insult after insult flew. Then, the time came.

When the doors opened, he immediately became aware of how public his case was. Though he'd seen reports and heard rumblings, he just wasn't aware of the magnitude of the hate. The weight of it all was almost too much to carry. Weak in the knees, he determined to keep moving. The people kept calling him a monster. The words were painful. However, it was more painful to realize that they were calling everyone he loved monsters, too. When the walk didn't seem like it could get any longer, he was there.

There was no question what everyone wanted. Death was in the air. The authorities gave him a chance to save his life, but he didn't take it. Nobody could believe it. Who wouldn't take the opportunity to save his own life? He was subjected to further punishment and then offered the chance at life again. He declined. Death it was.

The path was long between the place of judgment and the place of execution. At every step, the cries of monster overwhelmed his brain. The religious people seemed to be the ones shouting the loudest. In the midst of it all, he stumbled a few times. I guess that's the nature of all difficult paths.

As the place of execution approached, the governor had one last chance. Citing his faith, the governor let the killing continue. Waiting for death, the man prayed. Slowly, he was strapped in. His great crime was raised up for all of the world to see. God felt so far away. How could he have been so forsaken? His final words echoed in the beings of all who heard them, "Into your hands I commend my spirit." Death came with a rush. In great agony, he took his last breath. It was finished.

The accounts of Jesus' sacrifice and death always move me deeply. But this narrative is not about Jesus. This is a narrative of Rosendo Rodriguez, convicted of killing two women and stuffing their bodies into suitcases. Texas executed him last Tuesday. God was there and so was I. Under the rain, I watched. While I cannot say what Rodriguez' crimes meant for his soul, I can say what his execution means for ours.

The message of God died on that gurney. We killed our neighbor. We damned our persecutor. Surely God hates what we have done. Like it or not, our death penalty makes killers of us all. How are we any different than he? Only abolition can save us. The offer of life is on the table. Will we take the deal?

Source: Dallas Morning News, Opinion, Jeff Hood, March 29, 2018.  Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor and author. Website: revjeffhood.com


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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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