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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…

Texas: A rush to death risks executing the innocent

Jury box
Since the Supreme Court's lifting of the moratorium against the death penalty in 1976, more than 1,400 men and women have been killed at the hands of various states. Of that number, nearly a third were executed by the state of Texas. That's 549 people killed by our state. The cost of those executions has been enormous. According to the group Death Penalty Focus, imposing capital punishment costs taxpayers approximately 2.3 million dollars per defendant. If you're doing the math, one death penalty conviction costs more than three times what it would take to incarcerate a person under the highest level of security for 40 years. Ed Barnes, writing for Fox News U.S. in 2010 put it even more simply when he stated, "Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes."

Now, according to an article recently published by the Houston Chronicle, it appears Texas (in an effort to lessen the costs of capital convictions) wants to opt in to new federal legislation that would limit the appeals process in death penalty cases and speed up executions. That decision is wrong. Since 1973, 161 people nationwide, 13 of them right here in our Great State of Texas, have been released from death row, due to their wrongful convictions. If the numbers are accurate, it means Texas has spent nearly $30 million dollars getting it wrong.

Just for a moment, however, let's forget about the exorbitant costs associated with killing a fellow human being. The very idea that a person, innocent of a capital crime, could be caused to sit on death row for any amount of time or, worse, wrongfully killed by our government, is offensive to our fundamental notions of liberty and justice. As celebrated English jurist Sir William Blackstone once said, "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than 1 innocent suffer." Some of our founding fathers agreed.

Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, our nation's first Vice President, echoed Blackstone's sentiments. According to Ben Franklin, "It would be better for 100 guilty persons to escape than one innocent person suffer." Mr. Adams went even further when he said, "When innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, 'It is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security."' Our Founding Fathers were right. It is unconscionable for us to live in a society where innocence is condemned, virtue has no security and our society's greatest punishment is expedited for the sake of political expediency.

Granted, at a time when even basic facts are up for debate and every issue is, invariably, reduced to a cacophony of talking heads yelling at one another about right versus wrong, left versus right and conservative versus liberal, there's no wonder that very few in our criminal justice system, aside from the criminal defense bar, have had the courage to stand up and voice their collective opposition to this attempt to limit a defendant's ability to appeal a death penalty conviction. The truth, however, is that speaking out against a proposed course of action that is, at best, legally questionable and, at worst, morally wrong should not fall solely on those who are willing to defend citizens accused of committing society's most heinous crimes. We should all stand together.

It shouldn't matter what one's feelings about capital punishment are or what position a person holds in our system of jurisprudence. Be they judge, prosecutor or defense attorney, for or against capital punishment, each and every member of the criminal justice system should speak with one voice on at least this issue: The ability of a person to lodge a full and fair defense of a death conviction, irrespective of the costs, must be held sacrosanct.

Source: Houston Chronicle, Opinion, Michael R. Fields, April, 2018. Mr. Fields  is the judge in Harris County Criminal Court No. 14.


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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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