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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…

A Tennessee execution will make for a real-life Halloween

1000th execution USA
As the suffocating heat of summer recedes, October is a sterling, life-affirming time to be in Tennessee: Amidst the alluring foliage there are outdoor concerts and festivals galore, a cornucopia of cultural celebrations, and, of course, just like anywhere else in America, Halloween-themed events and parties abound.

But don’t carelessly don a costume just yet.

Why? Needlessly, immorally, and unconscionably – for Tennesseans, tourists and truth be told, for all of mankind – a veritably ghoulish event threatens to cast a pall over the festivities: the likely torturous lethal injection of Edmund Zagorski scheduled for Oct. 11.

Granted, before this vivid vestige of slavery – the execution of an otherwise reasonably healthy human being – is carried out, there are plenty of civilized, urbane happenings that’ll make Tennessee shine; for example: the National Storytelling Festival (in Jonesborough) kicked off on Friday, as did the Unicoi County Apple Festival (in Erwin). And, should neither of these humdingers float your boat, the 22nd annual “Celebrate Nashville Cultural Festival” runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Any of these fun-filled, family-friendly excursions could help distract you from the fact that, just a few days later, a flesh and blood human being, Mr. Zagorski, will, over three decades after his convictions, be strapped to a gurney and stuck with a needle, possibly, many, many times.

If that’s “successful,” he’ll then be pumped full of noxious chemicals that will likely – as a medical expert swore under oath concerning Tennessee’s potentially botched execution of Billy Ray Irick in August – make him feel like he’s “choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and burning.”

Foreshadowing Irick’s gruesome demise, the Intercept’s Tennessee-based Liliana Segura wrote a piece titled, “Our Most Cruel Experiment Yet: Chilling Testimony in a Tennessee Trial Exposes Lethal Injection as Court-Sanctioned Torture.”

Surely however, cool breezes, copacetic music, storytelling and crisp apples all have the capacity to calm your mind – to take it off of Zagorski’s impending torture – a travesty committed by the state, in your, in my, and in all of our names?

If not, or, if perhaps you’re disturbed that Tennessee has one of the highest poverty rates, but, as a 2004 report by the state’s comptroller showed, spends twice as much than it has to – to dysfunctionally and disastrously enforce the death penalty – perhaps the “Boo! at the Zoo” (in Knoxville) will lighten your spirit.

Please note, however: The same night Zagorski is killed, only annual pass holders and “Circle of Friends” members are welcome; for others who want to enjoy the zoo’s Boo! – after Zagorski’s hellacious suffering is over – it’ll be open each evening from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 12-14, Oct. 18-21, and Oct. 25-28.

And please don’t fret about the weather or anything like that, because the good news is: all of these October happenings in Tennessee have backup or contingency plans should any problem, unforeseen circumstance, complication or intervening act of God occur.

Oops, did I say all? Scratch that. Because according to another court filing, state executioners failed to follow protocol in Irick’s case by not completely preparing a backup set of lethal chemicals – just in case. As I’ve already alluded to, for Zagorski, such basic bungling could prove torturous.

But, what about for you? 

Well, you won’t have to dwell on it long. Because the very next day after Zagorski’s execution, after whatever egregious pain and suffering he feels, you can cleanse your mind of any lingering discomfort by attending the 30th annual Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville.

There, of course, you’ll find plenty of books and plenty of stories; but best of all: unless you browse specifically for lynching, the electric chair, lethal injection, what world-renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns famously dubbed “man’s inhumanity to man,” or, the death penalty generally in Tennessee, you’re likely to find stories that don’t – like Zagorski’s and Irick’s before him – repeat the same terrible, torturous tale.

Happy October.

Source: tennessean.com, Opinion, Stephen Cooper, October 5, 2018. Stephen Cooper is a former Washington, D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.


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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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