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…

New Mexico lawmakers visit state prison, view execution chamber

New Mexico state prison
Behind fences topped with razor wire, New Mexico’s old death chamber sits empty.

A red phone still hangs on the wall – a relic from when the governor could halt an execution at the last moment.

But there’s no steel table – or much of anything else – left in the 80-square-foot room, which lies inside a small, musty building at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.

A handful of New Mexico legislators this week got a rare peek at the execution chamber as part of a tour led by state prison officials. It’s where child-killer Terry Clark died in 2001, strapped down and pumped with a lethal combination of drugs.

“I’m just relieved we don’t need this any longer,” Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey of Albuquerque said after seeing the execution chamber.

She sponsored the 2009 legislation that ended New Mexico’s death penalty and replaced it with a life sentence, without the possibility of parole. Just last month, the state Supreme Court vacated the death sentences imposed on two inmates convicted before the 2009 repeal.

The group of lawmakers touring the state penitentiary passed by a mural honoring correctional officers who died in the line of duty, visited classrooms where inmates pursue general equivalency diplomas, and stopped inside a library filled with well-worn paperback books.

James Patterson – author of thrillers and other novels – is a popular request.

Chasey was 1 of 6 Democratic lawmakers who toured New Mexico’s 864-bed maximum-security prison, just south of Santa Fe. The tour was part of Monday’s agenda for the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, though most committee members skipped the tour.

Chasey, co-chairwoman of the committee, said she wishes more lawmakers would visit the prison, to see first hand the restrictive conditions imposed on inmates.

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, a Milan Democrat and former correctional officer himself, said it’s important for lawmakers to see for themselves the conditions inside the prison.

“We’re responsible for these people,” he said.

Alcon worked in the old main prison from 1975-77 – later the site of a vicious riot that killed 33 inmates in 1980.

Lawmakers this week didn’t have any direct contact with inmates during the 3-hour tour, but men in yellow prison jumpsuits could be seen through cell-door windows and in day rooms. The penitentiary holds inmates of the highest-security classifications.

Prison officials told legislators that they are trying to promote learning in a classroom setting to help rehabilitate inmates, rather than in noisy prison units. 

They also are tapping the inmates themselves to lead some programs – an arrangement that promotes peer learning and also provides a sense of purpose.

“When they have to start caring for someone else, that’s when you see the transformation,” said Anthony Romero, deputy director of adult prisons.

Source: Albuquerque Journal, Staff, July 11, 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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