Some of us are already familiar with the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham. In fact, a few years ago, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty published a resource called “Innocent and Executed” that featured the stories of four men who were most likely innocent and executed–three in Texas and one in Missouri.
A new investigative report shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004, was almost certainly innocent. The report comes three years after the Innocence Project released analysis from some of the nation’s leading forensic experts. These experts found that the core evidence against Willingham was not valid. The Innocence Project also obtained public records showing that Texas officials ignored this evidence in the days leading up to Willingham’s execution.
Willingham was convicted of arson murder in 1992 and was executed in February 2004. His three young children died at a fire in the family’s home. At Willingham’s trial, forensic experts testified that evidence showed the fire was intentionally set. A jailhouse informant also testified against Willingham, and other circumstantial evidence was used against him.
What more evidence do we need to demonstrate that the death penalty system cannot be trusted to always get it right. It is tragic enough that this man lost his children in a fire but then to be convicted of their murders and executed for killing them? It is beyond tragic, and in fact, was completely unnecessary.
What would have happened if Willingham had received a sentence less than death? He would be alive and perhaps, if represented by an attorney with the time and resources to commit to discovering the truth, would be getting out of prison today.
Of course, any wrongfully convicted person spending time in prison for something that he/she didn’t do is a travesty of justice, but if a person is still alive, the injustice can be remedied. There is no remedy for Cameron Todd Willingham.
Why with harsh sentences like life without parole do we continue to insist on death? Here is one result of the death penalty in this country–the execution of an innocent man by the very government which was supposed to protect him.
We can do better than this, and we must. Read the story about Willingham in The New Yorker here
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