The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently found that arson investigators used flawed scientific evidence which resulted in the death sentence and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted in 1992 of setting the fire that killed his 3 children.
Ironically, new fire investigation standards were developed the same year that Willingham was convicted. However, several years passed before the standards were adopted nationwide. Given these facts, the Commission did not find negligence on the part of the investigators but that does not change the fact that Willingham was sent to his death based on flawed science, though he maintained his innocence throughout his ordeal.
His cousin, Patricia Cox, told the Commission, “Even though there may not have been any malice or intent by fire investigators about not being informed on current standards, that does not excuse the fact that based on misinformation, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, and that can’t be corrected.”
Yet, we continue to put our faith in the death penalty when viable alternatives exist that are less costly and don’t risk killing an innocent person. Just this month, a new law has gone into effect in Tennessee adding yet another aggravator to the 15 Tennessee already has on the books, making a person eligible for the death sentence if they meet one of these now 16 aggravating factors. The law, HB2693, adds the murder of a pregnant woman to the list of aggravating factors to be considered in seeking the death penalty in first-degree murder cases.
No one questions that murder is horrific, regardless of who is murdered, how they are murdered, or why they are murdered. Murder is an egregious, irreversible act that robs someone of his/her life as well as the person’s family and the community as a whole. We do not question that murderous acts must be condemned and that those who murder must be called to account. What we question is the state’s making the same choice to kill, with all the known and well-established flaws in the death penalty system, and taking the risk of executing an innocent person when alternatives like life without parole are available.
One case like Cameron Todd Willingham’s is one too many, but sadly, there are many more than his. To date 138 people, including 2 from Tennessee, have been released from death rows after evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged–and those are only the ones we know about. We don’t know how many innocent people have been executed in our country since the reinstatement of the death penalty.
If Cameron Todd Willingham had received life without parole, the state of Texas would now have the opportunity to begin to address the injustice done to him. But he didn’t. Just as with any murder, there is no righting this wrong either, no balancing the scales. We, as a people, as a nation, are better than this.
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