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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…

California death penalty: Governor Gavin Newsom to halt executions

California's death chamber
California Governor Gavin Newsom will announce a moratorium on executions and a temporary reprieve for all 737 inmates on death row in the state.

US media report he plans to sign an executive order later on Wednesday, describing the death penalty as "inconsistent with our bedrock values".

California has not carried out any executions since 2006, as a series of court battles over execution methods have been waged.

No death row inmates will be released.

Governor Newsom took office in January and a death penalty moratorium was one of his campaign pledges.

"I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people," he said in a statement issued with the executive order.

The order will also withdraw California's lethal injection protocol and close down the state's execution chamber at San Quentin prison.

Two voter initiatives to end the death penalty in California have narrowly failed to gain a majority in recent years, with 48% support in 2012 and 47% support in 2016. Governor Newsom supported both initiatives.

But a separate proposition voted on in 2016 won support for its demand to speed up executions in California.

The governor does not have the power to abolish the state's 1978 death penalty legislation permanently. A repeal would require a popular vote in favour of the change. The next opportunity for such a ballot would be at the 2020 elections.

The reprieves Governor Newsom is now issuing will expire when he leaves office; his current term lasts until January 2023.

More than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978 but only 13 have been executed.

Another 79 have died of natural causes, and a further 26 took their own lives, figures from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation show.

Capital punishment in the US:
  • The death penalty is a legal punishment in 30 US states
  • Since 1976, Texas has carried out the most executions (560), followed by Virginia (113) and Oklahoma (112)
  • There are 2,738 inmates on death row in the US
  • California has the most prisoners on death row, 737, but has carried out only 13 executions since 1976
Source: BBC News, Staff, March 13, 2019


California Gov. Newsom places moratorium on executions


San Quentin prison
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The 737 inmates on California’s largest-in-the-nation death row are getting a reprieve from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who plans to sign an executive order Wednesday placing a moratorium on executions.

Newsom also is withdrawing the lethal injection regulations that death penalty opponents already have tied up in courts and shuttering the new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison that has never been used.

“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” he said in prepared remarks.

Newsom called the death penalty “a failure” that “has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” He also said innocent people have been wrongly convicted and sometimes put to death.

California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. And though voters in 2016 narrowly approved a ballot measure to speed up the punishment, no condemned inmate faced imminent execution.

Since California’s last execution, its death row population has grown to house one of every four condemned inmates in the United States. They include Scott Peterson, whose trial for killing his wife Laci riveted the country, and Richard Davis, who kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas during a slumber party and strangled her.

Newsom “is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy (Los Angeles County) District Attorneys.

California's death row, San Quentin prisonWhile the governor’s move is certain to be challenged in court, aides say his power to grant reprieves is written into the state Constitution and that he is not altering any convictions or allowing any condemned inmate a chance at an early release.

A governor needs approval from the state Supreme Court to pardon or commute the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony, and the justices last year blocked several clemency requests by former Gov. Jerry Brown that did not involve condemned inmates.

Other governors also have enacted moratoriums. Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the first in 2000 and later was followed by Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon. Illinois ultimately outlawed executions, as did Washington.

Newsom said the death penalty isn’t a deterrent, wastes taxpayer dollars and is flawed because it is “irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.” It’s also costly — California has spent $5 billion since 1978 on its death row, he said.

More than six in 10 condemned California inmates are minorities, which his office cited as proof of racial disparities in who is sentenced to die. Since 1973, five California inmates who were sentenced to death were later exonerated, his office said.

Brown also opposed the death penalty, but his administration moved to restart executions after voters acted in 2016 to allow the use of a single lethal injection and speed up appeals. His administration’s regulations are stalled by challenges in both state and federal court, though those lawsuits may be halted now that Newsom is officially withdrawing the regulations.

California's death chamber
Brown said he was satisfied with his record number of pardons and commutations, though he never attempted to commute a death sentence. He had focused on sweeping changes to criminal penalties and reducing the prison population.

“I’ve done what I want to do,” Brown said shortly before leaving office, defending his decision not to endorse death penalty repeal efforts in 2012 and 2016. “I’ve carved out my piece of all this.”

Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of Greenbrae plans to seek the two-thirds vote the Legislature requires to put another repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. Levine’s district includes San Quentin State Prison. A repeal question also was on the ballot in 2016 with the question to speed up executions. It lost by 7 points while the other question was approved by 2 points.

Newsom’s aides said it has not yet been decided what will become of the execution chamber, or whether corrections officials have been told to top preparing for executions, for instance by running drills.

Seventy-nine condemned California inmates have died of natural causes since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978. Another 26 committed suicide. California has executed 13 inmates, while two were executed in other states.

Newsom’s office said 25 condemned inmates have exhausted all of their appeals and could have faced execution if the courts approved the state’s new lethal injection method.

Source: The Associated Press, Don Thompson, March 13, 2019


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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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