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“River of Fire”: In New Memoir, Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Decades of Fighting Executions

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The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. This week Attorney General William Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases, and last month ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963 — the last being in 2003. The death penalty is widely condemned by national governments, international bodies and human rights groups across the world. Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. We speak with Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death-penalty activist who began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. …

Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

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.
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 ineffective legal representation all played a role in Willingham’s conviction.

RELATED | "Trial By Fire" Tells Story Of Dad Who May Have Been Wrongly Executed For Killing His Children

In October 2010, I presided over a posthumous Court of Inquiry at the request of two of Willingham’s family members seeking to clear his name. I heard compelling testimony from scientific experts who thoroughly debunked the arson evidence used against Willingham at his 1992 trial (a trial that lasted just two days). The tragic deaths of Willingham’s children likely were the result of a terrible accident, not a crime.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia notoriously wrote that there has not been “a single case – not one – in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event has occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row, in 1994.
For Zwick, “Trial by Fire” provides an opportunity to do just that: shout it from the rooftops and channel the rage he felt after reading David Grann’s article. His film is an honest portrayal of an unsympathetic man condemned as much by how people perceived him as the false evidence presented at his trial.

RELATED The film ‘Trial by Fire’ re-opens the famous murder case of Corsicana’s Cameron Todd Willingham

My own “shout” came in the form of an 18-page legal opinion, which would have granted the petition for a posthumous exoneration. I based my decision on the overwhelming, credible and reliable evidence presented during that hearing in 2010, weighing both the faulty forensic science as well as the dubious statements of Johnny Webb, the jailhouse informant whose testimony also was instrumental in Willingham’s conviction.

The Texas judicial system that failed Willingham at every turn also prevented me from issuing my order, however. Regrettably, the Third Court of Appeals halted the inquiry to consider whether I had authority to examine the case; I retired from the bench before that issue was resolved.

Through “Trial by Fire,” Willingham has another opportunity to make his case from beyond the grave – not just to those who played a role in his death but anyone coming into contact with the criminal justice system today.

Ed Zwick would like the person who served as the foreman of the jury that convicted Willingham – after deliberating less than an hour – to see this film. I would like all future jurors out there to watch “Trial by Fire” and confront the realities of this irrevocably broken system.

15 years may have passed since the state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, but his case and the lessons it should teach us still matter. See the film and then shout from the rooftops.

Source: Austin American-Statesman, Commentary; Charlie Baird, May 17, 2019. Charlie Baird retired as judge of the 299th District Court of Travis County in 2010. He continues to practice law as a criminal defense attorney in Austin.


New Podcast: Emmy- and Oscar-Award Winning Director Edward Zwick on His New Film, Trial By Fire


The Willingham family
In the latest episode of the Discussions with DPIC podcast, Emmy- and Oscar-winner Edward Zwick speaks about his newmovie, Trial By Fire

The film, which Zwick co-produced and directed, tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992 for the deaths of his three children in a house fire that prosecutors wrongly claimed had been intentionally set. 

As Willingham’s execution approached in 2004, evidence came to light that arson investigators had relied on flawed and outdated methods. 

The trial prosecutor also withheld evidence that a jailhouse informant who claimed that Willingham had confessed to him had been provided favorable treatment in exchange for implicating Willingham.

Willingham’s case featured what Zwick called a “catalog” of problems: “it had the withholding of exculpatory evidence, it had junk science, it had jailhouse snitches who would testify in exchange for reduced sentences, [and] it had a piss-poor public defender.” 

In an interview with DPIC’s Managing Director, Anne Holsinger, Zwick describes why he decided to tell Willingham’s story, what he learned from the experience, and how he hopes the film will affect audiences. Trial By Fire opens on May 17, 2019.

Trial By Fire is largely based on an investigative article of the same name written by David Grann and published in The New Yorker in 2009

Zwick called Grann’s account of the case a “categorical denunciation of everything that was wrong with the prosecutions in death-penalty cases.”

The movie focuses on the relationship between Willingham (Jack O’Connell) and his penpal, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern).

RELATED | Review: 'Trial by Fire' just might change your mind about the death penalty

Gilbert worked with the filmmakers and offered them access to her correspondence with Willingham. Zwick said he chose to portray that relationship because it was a “beautiful juxtaposition to the horrors of the case.”

He expressed gratitude to Gilbert for sharing the letters, which he said showed the “internal workings and the value of a man’s life, so he was more than just a statistic.”

He also said that the friendship between Willingham and Gilbert humanized the story and helped the film avoid being didactic. “People go to the movies because they want to invest in the characters and in the relationships. They don’t go to the movies to learn about issues, but that doesn’t say that they can’t have both.”

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, where executions are carried out.
Zwick characterized Willingham’s story as embodying the systemic problems in the way the death penalty is carried out in the United States. 

“In a system that cannot be guaranteed to be infallible, if a single innocent person has been put to death, that more than justifies getting rid of the death penalty,” he said.

Capital punishment, he said, is emblematic of the inequities in the criminal justice system at large: “The death penalty sits on top of the pyramid of charging and sentencing and trials, and that if it is so flawed and revealed to be unjust and if its absurdities can be so accepted, how then can we reform the rest of the system, before dealing with it?” 

The interview concluded with a discussion of the filmmaker’s hopes for how the audience will respond to the movie. “I know that it’s a Pollyanna-ish notion that a single film can do anything that affects policy itself. What it can do is add a set of images and a warm-bloodedness and a personal understanding of something that an audience might have only understood in more philosophical or political terms.” 

Storytelling can be part of cultural “paradigm shifts,” he said, noting that pop culture depictions of same-sex relationships helped shape public opinion on same-sex marriage.

“Change happens," Zwick said, "but how it happens and when it happens, and the rate at which it happens is unpredictable, and all that one can do in any kind of activist cause is to keep your head down and keep doing the work that you do because you are committed to that change.”

Source: Death Penalty Information Center, Staff, May 17, 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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