Recent scientific reports indicating that Texas likely executed an innocent man have spurred wide coverage and commentary. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three children. Fire experts now say the blaze was likely an accident. Excerpts from coverage:
New York Times Editorial, August 31, 2009, "Questions About an Execution":
People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.
Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.
. . .
The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.
David Grann, "Trial by Fire," The New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2009:
There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”
Houston Chronicle Editorial, September 2, 2009, "Up in smoke":
At the time of his state-inflicted death, it appeared Willingham's fate was to be remembered as a monster who burned his children alive for no conceivable motive. With the release of a report by renowned arson expert Craig Beyler, commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, history may hold him in a very different light: the first person executed since capital punishment resumed in the United States in 1974 who was posthumously proven innocent.
Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial, September 2, 2009, "The Risk of Getting it Wrong":
His (Willingham's) case epitomizes why capital punishment must end. Even if it happens only once, that's too often when the result might be the execution of an innocent person.
Bob Herbert, "Innocent But Dead," New York Times, Sept. 1, 2009:
The report is devastating, the kind of disclosure that should send a tremor through one's conscience. There was absolutely no scientific basis for determining that the fire was arson, said (forensice fire expert) Beyler. No basis at all. He added that the state fire marshal who investigated the case and testified against Willingham "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires." He said the marshal's approach seemed to lack "rational reasoning" and he likened it to the practices "of mystics or psychics."
John Feehery, "Is the death penalty defensible?" The Hill, Sept. 1, 2009 (blog):
I never agree with Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist. But on this one, he may have a point. He wrote a column today about the plight of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texan who was put to death for the crime of starting a fire in his own home, a fire that killed his three small children.
. . . I am bothered by the examples of people who are put to death even though they are innocent, like the one mentioned by Bob Herbert today. We should rethink the death penalty in this country. If even one innocent person is wrongly put to death on behalf of the state, for me, that is enough to get rid of it.
(Posted Sept. 3, 2009). See DPIC's post on The New Yorker article about Willingham.