Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bad science and the death row

I know that this article is nine days old, but I thought it worth blogging about nevertheless.

Two Texans sent to death row by bad science

Two Texans convicted of committing murder by setting fires were convicted because of faulty investigations. This conclusion was reached by a study conducted by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. They retained Dr. Craig L. Beyler of Maryland to conduct the study, and reported their findings on August 25. The results corroborated those of another study conducted in 2006, by the Innocence Project.

In 1987, Ernest Willis was convicted of setting a fire which killed two women, and sent to death row. In 2004, a new district attorney suspected problems with the original investigation and ordered a new one, which resulted in Willis being freed.

In 1992, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of setting a fire which killed his 2 year old daughter and 1 year twins. He was executed in 2004. Willingham's prosecutor, John Henry Jackson, admits that some bad science was used in his case, but believes he was guilty, because of his jail house confession and because his feet weren't burned.

I am against the death penalty because I have the fundamental stance that it's not the role of society to kill, except in self-defense (and I don't believe that murdering someone who is locked away can in any way be considered self-defense). Even if I didn't have this viewpoint, I'd still be against the death penalty for the reason demonstrated here.

I don't know if Willingham was guilty or not, but at least part of the evidence used to convict him was based on bad science. This means that he didn't have due process when found guilty. Unlike Willis he won't have a chance to be freed though, as he has already been murdered by the State of Texas. It can be debated whether locking people up for years can be undone, but at least something can be done to undo the injustice - the same cannot be said about someone executed.

Hopefully this story will lead the State of Texas (the US state with the most executions, currently run by the governor with the most executions under his watch) to re-consider the death penalty, or at the very least, to go through the evidence used to convict people currently sitting on death row (or even better, commission the Innocence Project to do so).

Edit: The New Yorker also has an article on this story: Trial by Fire

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Anonymous Marilyn Mann said...

In your headline, I think you mean "the death penalty" not "the death row."

Texas is an extremely conservative state. I doubt this will change anything. We have to keep trying, however.

September 12, 2009 5:11 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

True about the headline. Still, I think it works - people who are sentenced to the death penalty goes to the death row after all

September 12, 2009 5:16 PM  
Blogger Texas Moratorium Network said...

Sign a petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

September 12, 2009 9:23 PM  

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