Next spring, Texas will decide whether or not to become the first state to admit it executed an innocent man.
Cameron Willingham was put to death in February 2004, 12 years after being convicted of killing his three infant children in a fire at their Corsicana, Texas, home.
In August, the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS) released a report that concluded none of the evidence from the fire indicated it was set intentionally and that the state fire marshal who testified the fire was arson lacked “any realistic understanding of fires.”
The IAFSS was asked to investigate the case by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which was created in 2005 to re-examine questionable forensic evidence. The TFSC plans to continue its examination of the fire, but admits the report is a “major step” toward exonerating all that is left of Willingham: his name.
As in any jury trial in the United States, Willingham, who maintained his innocence to the end, was convicted by a group of his peers—12 men and women who supposedly represented the community in which he lived. However, the prosecution in his case sought the death penalty, and that automatically changed the pool of people allowed to serve on his jury.
For capital cases in which the jury will debate whether or not to sentence a convicted defendant to death, the Supreme Court mandates that jurors be “death-qualified”—that is, they must pledge during the jury selection process that they morally support capital punishment and that they would have no problem signing a sentence that will result in the death of another human being.
Social science research indicates that this selection process seriously limits juries in capital cases to people who share similar moral viewpoints. During the last four decades, U.S. researchers have found that in capital cases the people most likely to be chosen during the jury selection process are those with “authoritarian” personality types—people who believe that strict enforcement of laws is needed to maintain social stability. Authoritarians follow convention. They think the function of disciplinary action is to control criminals. They predictably tend to convict anyone (both the guilty and the innocent) who is unfortunate enough to be indicted and brought to trial before a jury. In other words, they believe one is guilty until proven innocent, and are thus more likely to accept the prosecution’s case rather than the defendant’s.
Psychologist and litigation consultant Brooke Butler’s research has shown that those on death-qualified juries tend to believe in a fundamentally just world—people get what they deserve and that everything that happens in a person’s life is a direct result of things they control. She found that such jurors are more likely to make decisions based on aggravating circumstances (the morbid facts surrounding a victim’s death, etc.) rather than mitigating ones. They are more racist, sexist and homophobic than their unselected counterparts, and less likely to accept mental illness or age as a defense. Death-qualified jurors are typically “male, Caucasian, moderately well-educated, politically conservative, Catholic or Protestant, and middle-class,” she says.
Victoria Springer, social science researcher and sentencing expert, argues that the people with authoritarian personality types who are typically selected to serve on death-qualified juries will face a serious mental conflict. These pro-crime-control jurors are required to “adopt the attitude that the individual to be tried before them is innocent until proven guilty—which stands in direct opposition to their attitudes, orientation, and personality that has been specifically selected for.”
From there, it is easy to understand how for such people the fundamental presumption of innocence conflicts with what the prosecution presents to them as “the facts”—the evidence, regardless of strength. Springer says that if the assumption of innocence clashes with the death-qualified juror’s desire to remove a criminal from the streets, then the decision to render a guilty verdict reinforces what these jurors feel is their purpose on the jury in the first place.Cameron Willingham, wrongfully convicted and executed by a Texas jury selected through the filter of “death qualification,” was robbed of the right to have a jury of his peers decide his fate. Instead, he was put to death by those of his neighbors who innately believe that the American judicial system is a bastion of truth.
Three innocent, exonerated former death row prisoners will be among the special guests today at the Tenth Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty October 24, 2009 at 2 PM in Austin, Texas at the Texas Capitol on the South Steps at 11th and Congress. Also attending will be the penpal of Todd Willingham, Elizabeth Gilbert, who first investigated his innocence. Plus, Todd’s last lawyer Walter Reaves. Please attend the march to support the Willingham family as they fight to prove that Todd Willingham was innocent.
Speakers and other confirmed attendees at the march will include three innocent, now-exonerated death row prisoners (Shujaa Graham, Curtis McCarty and Ron Keine), Jeff Blackburn (Chief Counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas), Jeanette Popp (a mother whose daughter was murdered but who asked the DA not to seek the death penalty), Elizabeth Gilbert (the penpal of Todd Willingham who first pushed his innocence and helped his family find a fire expert to investigate), Walter Reaves (the last attorney for Todd Willingham, who fought for him through the execution and continues to fight to exonerate him), Terri Been whose brother Jeff Wood is on death row convicted under the Law of Parties even though he did not kill anyone, and Anna Terrell the mother of Reginald Blanton who is scheduled for execution in Texas on Oct 27 three days after the march, plus others to be announced.
The march starts at 2 PM on October 24 at the Texas Capitol. We will gather at the Texas Capitol at the gates leading into the Capitol on the sidewalk at 11th Street, march down Congress Avenue to 6th street, then back to the South Steps of the Capitol for a rally to abolish the death penalty.
Panel Discussion: The night before the march, there will be a panel discussion on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin at 7 PM with Shujaa Graham and Curtis McCarty. (Thank you to Bill Pelke and the Journey of Hope for helping bring them to Austin for the march.) Shujaa and Curtis will speak about what it is like to be innocent and sentenced to death. The panel is in the Sinclair Suite (room 3.128) of the Texas Student Union on Guadalupe. Call if you need more directions 512-552-4743.
Post-march Strategy Meeting: Immediately after the march on October 24, we plan to hold a networking and strategy meeting inside the capitol. Everyone is invited to attend the strategy session and help us plan how to move forward towards abolition in Texas. The strategy session will start about 30 minutes after the last speaker at the march.
Now is one of the most critical times ever to march against the death penalty.
We just learned from a state-funded report that Texas executed Todd Willingham for arson/murder even though the fire was not arson it was just a fire, so Texas executed an innocent person.
From today's Waco Herald Tribune:
Rally scheduled for Corsicana man executed in 2004 in arson case
Saturday, October 24, 2009
By Cindy V. CulpTribune-Herald staff writer
The case of a Corsicana man executed in 2004 for arson murder will be at the center of an anti-death penalty rally today at the Texas Capitol.
Local attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr., who represented Cameron Todd Willingham during the final part of his appeals process, planned to attend the 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty, along with four people who were exonerated after being on death row. The event is being organized by a number of groups that oppose the death penalty.
As part of the event, activists plan to deliver a petition to Gov. Rick Perry that urges him to say that the 1991 fire that killed Willingham’s three young daughters was not arson, said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network. It will also ask for Texas executions to be suspended and for Perry to appoint an impartial body to examine the state’s death penalty system, he said.
Willingham’s case, and the role Perry has played in the execution and subsequent investigation into whether it was flawed, has been in the national spotlight. Attention started mounting earlier this month after Perry abruptly replaced four people on the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission, including its chairman.
The upheaval came shortly before the commission was set to hear a report from a fire expert hired by the panel. That expert said the arson finding was not scientifically supported, giving further weight to those who say the Willingham case offers the first credible proof of wrongful execution in modern U.S. history.
Reaves said he was initially reluctant to participate in the rally because it could detract from the facts of Willingham’s individual case. He decided to attend, however, because it is another forum to continue pressing Willingham’s case and rebut arguments from the governor’s office, he said.
Also highlighted at the rally will be the cases of four people who spent time on death row before being exonerated.
If Texans take time to listen to people who have wrongly faced execution, public opinion of the practice will change, Cobb said.
“We tell the actual facts about the death penalty, and the fact is that innocent people get convicted and get sentenced to death. And, in some cases, they are not able to prove their innocence before they are executed,” Cobb said.
For more information about the rally or petition, go online to www.camerontoddwillingham.com.