Wednesday, May 03, 2006

An Innocent Man Was Executed

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas refused a "last-minute stay," and Cameron T. Willingham was wrongfully executed on Feb. 17, 2004.

The New York Times
reports today that evidence in the case of Willingham as well as another inmate, Ernest R. Willis, were based on "[f]aulty evidence masquerading as science."

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A report commissioned by the Innocence Project "was presented to a new state panel, the Texas Forensic Science Commission," an agency created last last year when lawmakers became outraged over the lack of "integrity of crime laboratories."

Barry C. Scheck, a co-director of the Innocence Project, said the report offered "important evidence of serious scientific negligence or misconduct in the investigations, reports and testimony of Texas state fire marshals" and called into question not just the two cases but also many others based on similar arson analyses.
Fortunately for Mr. Willis, "authorities conceded that he did not commit the crime for which he was condemned" before he was executed.

Mr. Willingham was not as lucky!

The report looked at evidence from the two similar cases, which led to two totally difference conclusions.

The report says that prosecution witnesses in both cases interpreted fire indicators like cracked glass and burn marks as evidence that the fires had been set, when more up-to-date technology shows that the indicators could just as well have signified an accidental fire. In one case, the signs were accepted as proof of guilt, the report said; in the other, they were discarded as misleading.

"These two outcomes are mutually exclusive," Mr. Scheck said. "Willis cannot be found 'actually innocent' and Willingham executed based on the same scientific evidence."


To analyze the evidence, the Innocence Project commissioned five unpaid experts: Douglas J. Carpenter of Combustion Science and Engineering in Columbia, Md.; Daniel L. Churward of Kodiak Fire and Safety Consulting in Fort Wayne, Ind.,; John J. Lentini of Applied Technical Services in Marietta, Ga.,; Michael A. McKenzie of
the law firm Cozen O'Connor in Atlanta; and David M. Smith of Associated fire Consultants in Tucson.

In the Willingham trial, the committee found, a deputy state fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, erred in tracing the blaze to an accelerant. The committee discredited his finding of arson. "Each and every one of the 'indicators' listed by Mr. Vasquez means absolutely nothing," the report said.

A Corsicana assistant fire chief, Douglas Fogg, "seemed to harbor many of the same misconceptions held by Mr. Vasquez," the report went on. It concluded that the fire had been "grossly misinterpreted." Mr. Fogg did not respond to a message left on his answering machine. Mr. Vasquez is dead.

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Texas not only leads the nation in executions but also leads the nation "in inmates serving time for arson, the report said: 666 as of 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available."

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Last November, the
Houston Chronicle presented compelling evidence that 17-year old Ruben Catu, whose last request for bubble gum was denied, was also wrongfully executed on Aug. 24, 1993.

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Since the death penalty was reinstated, at least 123 death row inmates have been
exonerated by DNA evidence...

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