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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…

Washington can lead on ending death penalty. But it must take one more step


Dismantling California's death chamber
California’s new governor channelled his inner Jay Inslee last week when he shut down the largest death row in America. Gavin Newsom called the death penalty “inconsistent with our bedrock values” and said it “strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.” 

We’ll give Newsom credit for strong convictions, if not originality, and accept that the world seldom notices a West Coast social movement until it takes hold in California. 

Leaders in our state have long known capital punishment is an inherently wasteful, erratic and morally fraught practice — and that it runs counter to what it means to be a Washingtonian. 

Inslee set the tone in 2014, during his 1st term as governor, when he said no executions would proceed on his watch. The Washington Supreme Court was next to lay down a marker, unanimously ruling last fall that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it’s “arbitrary” and “racially biased.” 

All that remains is for lawmakers in Olympia to pass a bill that wipes the death penalty from state statute and leaves nothing to chance. 

The Senate has approved legislation that would make life imprisonment without possibility of parole the only option for prosecutors pursuing aggravated 1st-degree murder charges. The House should now pick up Senate Bill 5339 and carry it to the finish line, before the 2019 session runs out. 

Some argue legislative action is unnecessary because the death penalty is, for all practical purposes, dead in Washington. No executions have taken place here since 2010, and the decrees by Inslee and the Supreme Court ensure none will happen in the foreseeable future. 

But the court left wiggle room for a future Legislature to try to enact a new-and-improved way to execute the worst of our state’s worst offenders — one that doesn’t place black defendants at more than quadruple the risk of being sentenced to death as their white counterparts. 

If 50 years of failed fixes have taught us anything, it’s that the death penalty is beyond repair and lawmakers should abolish it once and for all. 

In Walla Walla — home of the Washington State Penitentiary, where 8 men awaited death by lethal injection before last year’s court ruling, including three for murders in Pierce County — an in-depth report by the Union-Bulletin newspaper in 2009 pegged the cost of carrying out the death penalty over three decades at $20 million. 

In that time, 5 men were executed, while countless family members were dragged through excruciatingly long appeals. 

Life without parole is a more cost-efficient punishment, and is no less effective as a criminal deterrent — especially when you factor in the threat of solitary confinement for bad behavior that hangs over inmates’ heads. 

Meanwhile, Washington residents grapple with uneven application of the law. Green River killer Gary Ridgway, convicted of slaying 49 young women, wasn’t sent to death row. Nor was Terapon Adhahn, who abducted and killed 12-year-old Zina Linnick in 2007, despite saying he’d prefer to die for his crimes against the Tacoma girl. 

To those who fear ending the death penalty signifies Washington leaders are going soft on hardcore criminals, we beg to differ. A bill this year that would’ve given some inmates serving life sentences a shot at freedom never made it out committee. Washingtonians aren’t ready for that conversation. 

But they’re more than ready to wash their hands of the state-sanctioned business of taking people’s lives. 

The governor did it. So did the Supreme Court. Legislators should follow their lead, show our state speaks with one voice on this matter and make clear who the West Coast’s true progressive leader is when it comes to shedding an archaic apparatus of injustice. 

Source: Tacoma News Tribune, March 21, 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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