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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…

Zulfikar’s case

Zulfikar Ali
The death on Thursday of Zulfikar Ali, a Pakistani suffering from liver cancer and diabetes and who had been languishing in Indonesian prisons since 2004, serves as a reminder of the miscarriage of justice he suffered. 

Zulfikar was given the death penalty for drug trafficking even though ample evidence existed to suggest he was innocent. He was never caught with any drugs and was only arrested after an Indian national who was found in possession of heroin named Zulfikar as his accomplice. Later, however, that person claimed a false confession was beaten out of him by the police. 

Zulfikar also said that his own confession was the result of torture and that the police had asked for a bribe to set him free. Leading up to his trial, Zulfikar was denied consular access even though this is a bedrock principle of international law; he was not allowed a lawyer till a month after his arrest. 

Despite there being more than enough doubt to make a conviction impossible, Zulfikar was given the death penalty. Even his terminal illness was not enough to get him mercy. Earlier this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo had said during a visit to Pakistan that he would look into Zulfikar’s release on humanitarian grounds but that never transpired.

There is no reason to doubt the commitment of the then government in Pakistan to Zulfikar’s cause. It did what it could to ensure he had legal representation and was able to eventually able to get him access to embassy officials. The government also paid a portion of his medical bills since the Indonesian government does not pay for the medical treatment of prisoners. But Pakistan should not give up the fight even now. It is essential that his name be formally cleared. 

We may also want to think about the scores of convicts who are on death row here but whose guilt is in doubt and whose trials did not meet the minimum standards of justice. 

There have been horror stories of people on death row who have been executed by mistake even though they still had appeals pending. A true commitment to justice requires we call out not just foreign countries that mistreat our nationals but to examine our own shortcomings as well.

Source: The News, Editorial, June 3, 2018


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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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