Monday, October 26, 2009

March to Abolish the Death Penalty in the News

"Protesters voice concerns about death penalty," is Bobby Longoria's article in today's The Daily Texan.

Hundreds of signs adorned with crossed out nooses and photos of executed men were held by protestors on the steps of the state Capitol on Saturday as they called for the exoneration of executed Texas man Cameron Todd Willingham.

Anti-death penalty activists have gathered in Austin every October since 2000 to show support for the abolition of the death penalty. This year’s March to Abolish the Death Penalty marks the event’s return to Austin after two years in Houston.

The march was sponsored by more than 50 organizations and included appearances by three exonerated men and the families of current death row inmates.

“I’ve lost all my friends, I lost my family and I am angry,” said Curtis McCarthy, who spent 19 years on death row in Oklahoma before being exonerated in May 2007 by DNA evidence. “I know how the family of Willingham feels. I don’t know what to do about it ... I am here. I don’t know what else to do.”

Willingham was a resident of Corsicana who was convicted of capital murder of his three daughters who were killed in a fire at their home Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham was accused of setting the fire and spent more than 10 years in the trial process claiming he was innocent.

After unsuccessful appeals, Willingham was executed Feb. 17, 2004. The incident has been given increased attention after several independent reviews of the arson investigation claim it based its conclusions on faulty reasoning.

Demonstrators also voiced their opposition to Gov. Rick Perry’s comments and actions this month regarding Willingham’s execution.

At a press conference after a Texas Association of Realtors luncheon two weeks ago, Perry called Willingham “a monster” and said that multiple testimonies and the fact that the court upheld the jury’s verdict proved that Willingham was guilty. Perry told the media to not be misled by anti-death penalty “propaganda.”

The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler to investigate Willingham’s case.

“The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators,” Beyler said in his August report. “A finding of arson could not be sustained.”

On Sept. 30, two days before the commission was set to meet and review Beyler’s report, Perry removed three members of the commission, including the chairman, who he replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. Bradley canceled the Oct. 2 meeting, which has yet to be rescheduled.

“If we had any of the number of experts that have come forth now and given testimony in this case, Todd Willingham would have never been convicted. He would have never been executed. He probably never would have even been tried,” said Walter Reaves, Willingham’s lawyer during the appeals process.

Reaves said he is seeking post-mortem exoneration of Willingham as well as a formal apology. He said that reports by arson experts indicating that Willingham did not set the fire were not given a fair consideration during the appeals process.

“[Lawmakers] need to fix the procedural problems with police and prosecutorial misconduct in this state before we even think about executing people,” said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel to The Innocence Project of Texas.

After an examination of Willingham’s case, the project believes he was unjustly put to death, Blackburn said.

Multiple families appeared at the event showing support for men currently on death row including Rodney Reed, who is accused of the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites.

“I am out here every chance I get and I am going to keep on doing it even after my brother comes home because the death penalty is wrong,” said Roderick Reed, Rodney Reed’s brother. “I got involved because of my brother, but I am going to stay with it until the end to see it is abolished.”
Bruno Mortan/The Daily Texan
Jane Chamberlain holds her homemade
sign as exonerated prisoners talk about their
experiences on death row during an anti-death penalty

march held on Saturday afternoon.

Joshua Sander's of the Austin American-Statesman has an article in the front page of Sunday's Metro section titled, "Protesters march to call for an end to executions."

Anti-death penalty protesters gathered at the Capitol on Saturday in part to voice their disapproval of Gov. Rick Perry's remarks this month regarding Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young children on Dec. 23, 1991.

The 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty occurred in the midst of a renewed debate over capital punishment, largely spurred by Willingham's case. Most recently, former Texas Gov. Mark White said the state should reconsider its use of capital punishment "so we don't look up one day and determine that we, as the State of Texas, have executed someone who in fact was innocent."

White's comments came as Perry has been criticized for replacing four members of the Texas Forensics Commission and delaying consideration of a fire scientist's report questioning the 2004 execution of Willingham. Perry has described Willingham as a "monster" and said he is certain of his guilt.

One of the lawyers who represented Willingham in his appeals disagreed.

"Todd Willingham was a person who deserved to be treated fairly, and he didn't get that," said Walter Reaves, Willingham's appellate attorney. "No one could ever make the case that if we knew then what we know now that he would have been convicted, tried and executed."

Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit group that works to overturn wrongful convictions, said that the Willingham case "represents an opportunity for Texas to fix a broken criminal justice system."

Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, a nonprofit organization that aims to mobilize support for a moratorium on state executions, said about 50 organizations were responsible for organizing Saturday's march.

The event attracted hundreds of people, who carried signs with photographs of inmates currently on death row and posters bearing slogans such as "Stop All Executions."

About a dozen protesters sat on the steps of the Capitol, holding white posters with lists of the hundreds of inmates who have been executed in Texas since 1982, when the state resumed executions.

Austinite Jeanette Popp, 60, came to the march with a different perspective.

On Oct. 24, 1988, Popp's 20-year-old daughter, Nancy DePriest, was found dead with her hands bound behind her back at the North Austin Pizza Hut where she worked. Two men were wrongfully convicted of her death and served 12 years in prison. They were freed in 2001, after DNA evidence implicated another man.

The confessed killer, Achim Josef Marino, said that he had shot DePriest as part of a satanic sacrifice. Eventually, Popp lobbied for Marino to be spared the death penalty, which he was.

Despite the time that has passed, Popp said, the conversation on capital punishment has not changed.

"It's the 21st anniversary of my daughter's murder, and we're still talking about murdering people with the murdering machine," she said.; 445-3630

"Protesters march against the death penalty" is Tristan Hallman's article in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.

AUSTIN — A crowd of anti-death penalty protestors, fueled by the controversy over the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and changes to the Texas Forensic Science Commission that is looking into the case, gathered at the steps of the Capitol on Saturday for the 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Dozens of protesters marched down South Congress Avenue and recited chants for an end to capital punishment and declared that Gov. Rick Perry was guilty of homicide. The goal, said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, was to make Perry admit to Willingham’s innocence and to end the death penalty, which several speakers called corrupt, racist and biased against the poor.

Willingham was convicted of the murder of his three young daughters by setting fire to his Corsicana home in 1991. Recent investigations have questioned the charge of arson.

“We’re certainly convinced now after a review by expert scientific investigators that there is no evidence of arson,” Cobb said.

Joining the protesters were exonerated ex-death row inmates Curtis McCarthy, Ron Keine and Shujaa Graham. Corey Session, brother of Timothy Cole, a man who died in a Texas prison in 1999, spoke as well. Cole’s posthumous exoneration has led to the creation of the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, which held its first meeting Friday. Session said he believed Willingham would be exonerated if his case were heard by an advisory panel.

Willingham’s appellate attorney, Walter Reaves, and Willingham’s pen pal and frequent death row visitor, Elizabeth Gilbert, spoke at the event. Gilbert, who said she has three binders full of letters from Willingham, said that after looking into his case, she’s convinced of his innocence.

“Todd was a very caring person,” said Gilbert, who began corresponding with and visiting Willingham in 1999 after getting his information at an anti-death penalty demonstration in Philadelphia. “He was a considerate, polite, funny, smart person. He was a real human being.”

Eugenia Willingham, mother of Willingham, originally was scheduled speak but decided not to. She said she canceled at the last minute in part because she was tired and the drive from her home in Ardmore, Okla., was long. She also said she didn’t want to be a distraction from the focus on her son’s case.

However, Willingham said she also isn’t entirely against the death penalty.

“I feel there probably should be a death penalty,” she said. “But I feel like the system should be reformed in a way so that innocent people aren’t executed. I feel like there are too many people on death row that are innocent.”

Although there had been speculation that the case against Willingham was flawed, much of the national attention on Willingham came after Perry’s decision to not reappoint four state forensic panelists while they were investigating the case. Perry said they were replaced because their terms had expired.

Craig Beyler, a Maryland-based arson expert who had been hired by the Forensic Science Commission, has spoken out against Perry’s action and, in his report, questioned the finding of arson.

Perry responded to Beyler’s criticism by calling Willingham a “monster” and saying Beyler is politically motivated. Beyler has denied those claims.

Perry spokesman Allison Castle said Perry stands by his support for the death penalty. Castle noted that Willingham’s conviction was upheld by nine courts and the death penalty has been upheld as a punishment by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Death penalty opponents rally at Capitol" is Jay Root's article for the Associated Press.

Willingham was convicted of capital murder for the 1991 deaths of his three children in a fire at their Corsicana home. Forensic scientists have called into question arson evidence used to convict Willingham, who maintained his innocence until his death by lethal injection.

Dozens of protesters marched from the Capitol down Congress Avenue, waving placards and chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, the death penalty has got to go.”

Organizers of the rally said they want to bring attention to the Willingham case and Gov. Rick Perry's shakeup of the commission that was investigating the science used to convict him.

“We urge the people and the governor to take a look at this case and examine the new evidence,” said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network. “There is no scientific evidence of arson in this case, and if there was no arson, there was no crime ... We want Texas to admit that it's made a tragic mistake here.”

The governor has come under fire for replacing members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just before they were to review a new report critical of the arson science used in the capital murder case. Perry has dismissed the criticism as anti-death penalty propaganda, and says the panel will move forward with the investigation. Speaking at a news conference this month, Perry called Willingham a “monster” who beat his wife and then killed his children.

One of the speakers at the event, Willingham friend Elizabeth Gilbert, said she was sickened by Perry's comments. Gilbert, a Houston teacher, befriended Willingham when he was behind bars and became his advocate, helping to spearhead a re-examination of his case.

“They are still continuing to throw mud at Todd to keep people's attention away from the fact that there wasn't an arson case,” she said.

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle, noting that Willingham's conviction was upheld despite numerous appeals, said the governor believed he was guilty.

“Like most Texans, Gov. Perry supports the death penalty for those who commit the most heinous crimes,” she added.

Willingham's mother, Eugenia Willingham, had been scheduled to speak at the rally but was unable to attend. In a written statement released by event organizers, she told of letters she had received from death row inmates saying her son's execution has caused appeals courts to take a closer look at their cases.

“This won't bring Todd back, but I take comfort in knowing that others may be freed because of him,” she wrote.
UPI: "Texans rally against death penalty"

AUSTIN, Texas, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Anti-execution activists say the state of Texas must end its death penalty practices.

The 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty held Saturday in Austin drew hundreds of anti-death penalty activists, many spurred by the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 after a scientific report cast doubt on his 1991 triple murder conviction, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been criticized for allegedly failing to read a fire scientist's report questioning Willingham's then-pending execution for the deaths of his three daughters in a house fire. Perry has responded by describing Willingham as a "monster" and saying he is certain of his guilt.

Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, attended the march and told the American-Statesman the Willingham case "represents an opportunity for Texas to fix a broken criminal justice system."

The newspaper said some protesters carried posters bearing the names of hundreds of inmates executed in Texas since 1982.

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