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…

If you think bringing back the death penalty would cut serious crime, you're totally wrong

Every story about a murder is followed by comments calling for the death penalty. This is why that's stupid

This involved spending a day and a half trawling through old articles, court reports and archives.

Initially I thought it would be tricky to find young killers, depressingly, that was not the case. That is not to say that this sort of crime is common in Wales, far from it, just they tend be so high profile you can’t miss them.

After writing the story I walked back along Cardiff’s Queen Street on my way home.

If I am been brutally honest, I did find the 15-year-olds on their bikes far more intimidating than usual and felt none of the usual compulsion to push them over as they wheelie towards me.

However there was one thing that scared me far more than Clayton on his BMX (I know his name because his mate said “Clayton give me my f***ing chips back”). The thing that scared me most were the comments on the story.

Rhian said: “Anyone who murders should just die. A life for a life.”

Karen agreed saying: “Definitely bring back hanging.”

Some went even further saying: “All it does it highlight the pathetic justice system. I’d throw most of them off a cliff, never mind keeping them at two grand a week and then letting them go whilst still young. Better learn to protect yourselves cause nobody else going to do it.”

Other people's solutions were less cliff based: “The UK Government should reintroduce capital punishment, because at the moment there’s no real deterrent. I signed a petition for the reintroduction of the death penalty, on the UK Government’s e-petition’s website! If more people signed, maybe they’d reintroduce it?”

In total I think hanging was mentioned over 20 times.

Leaving behind the death penalty was one of the greatest ever steps forward we made as a country and I think it is worth occasionally revisiting the specific reasons why we don’t murder people for murdering people.

First things first when do you think the death penalty was abolished in Britain? I bet in the back of your mind you are thinking 1960s?

If so, you'd be wrong. While executing people for murder was outlawed by the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965, here were still four offences for which you could be murdered by the state for. They were: high treason, piracy with violence (arrrrr), arson in royal dockyards and espionage (a lot seem ship-based for some reason).

Murder by the state was only officially outlawed in 1998. So really, the state has only been legally unable to execute you since Harry Potter went into the Chamber of Secrets.

Now that little quiz is out of the way, here are some quick fire reasons the death penalty is just a terrible thing to bring back.

Firstly, let’s look at some of the company we would join if we reintroduced the death penalty and how many people they killed last year.

China (1,551 executions in 2017), Iran (506). Iraq (125+), Somalia (24) and the USA (23).

The only European country to maintain capital punishment is the human rights paradise of Belarus.

If that exalted company doesn’t convince you how about some facts.

One of the biggest arguments people use is that the death penalty is the ultimate deterrent.

However this is simply not true. Study after study has shown this is just not the case, while the greatly inflated murder rate in the US compared to the UK provides further evidence.

Backers of capital punishment may also like to know that introducing the death penalty would actually reduce the amount of people successfully prosecuted for murder.

Anna Bindler and Randi Hjalmarsson from the University of Gothenburg, examined over 200,000 cases from the Old Bailey criminal court in London from 1715 to 1900.

They suggested that when capital punishment was an option, juries were often reluctant to convict at all, particularly in the case of women.

Next up we have the thin end of the wedge argument.

As soon as we make it acceptable for the state to kill people for murder it makes it acceptable to kill them for other things.

What about paedophilia? What about treason? What about rape? You may think that it is correct to kill people for the sexual assault of a child, but as soon as you make it acceptable for a government to kill its own people you make far easier for them to do it for many other reasons.

What if someone whistleblows on state sponsored surveillance? That could be considered treason - do they deserve to die?

Also if you then make things other than murder punishable by death, you get the stage where people may as well commit murder instead of sexual assault as it makes them more likely to get away with it.

Finally, and most importantly, what if you are wrong?

This happens all the time. Even in my list of teenage killers there was a wrongful conviction. If the man originally convicted had been executed the state would have literally murdered an innocent man. As a democracy, if the state kills someone, we all kill someone. That means that 60 million murderers are created at once.

And this murder of innocents wouldn’t happen just once. Wrongful convictions happen all the time.

“Fine” you might say, “but what if someone pleads guilty, surely then”.

Well the two issues with this is that firstly, sometimes people plead guilty when they are not guilty.

Secondly, if pleading guilty means potential death no one will do it! If saving money is your rationale for capital punishment, then long drawn out trials because no one will admit guilt are not the way to go.

At the moment we know the death penalty will put us at the same human rights table as China and Iran. It won't reduce the murder rate, won't reduce the number of successful convictions, could be used by the state to kill opponents, make people more likely to murder rather than commit lesser offences, make people refuse to admit guilt and even result in the murder of innocent people.

This doesn’t include a huge range of other reasons like the fact there is not painless/simple way to execute someone (some lethal injections can take ages).

However I think you have quite enough there to make you feel twice before demanding people "hang”.

Source: walesonline.co.uk, Will Hayward, October 9, 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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