Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Evidence mounts that Texas executed an innocent man

In August 2008, I wrote about the case of Cameron Willingham who was murdered by the State of Texas for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three children. Today there is more evidence than before that Texas murdered an innocent man.

In the upcoming issue of The New Yorker is a piece by reporter David Grann that looks at the Willingham case inside and out. Mr. Grann's portrait of incompetence and intellectual dishonesty casts the blame for Mr. Willingham's murder by lethal injection far and wide.

While he castigates Deputy State Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez for his junk science, laziness and perjured testimony and Mr. Willingham's court-appointed attorneys for their (shall we say) failure to provide a vigorous defense, Mr. Grann provides a haunting look at the hell Mr. Willingham endured during his years on death row.

The article also makes me wonder how much longer we will have to put up with pseudo-scientific evidence such as bite mark analysis, handwriting analysis, tire tread analysis and all the other expert testimony that is "more art than science." When will our judiciary finally understand that criminal trial work is not merely an academic exercise? How many times will we have to hear the Court of Criminal Appeals state that factual innocence alone is insufficient to overturn a conviction? When will our lawmakers realize that the death penalty never has been, and never will be, an effective deterrent?

How many more innocent men have been murdered in the death house in Huntsville?


Anonymous said...

I have a good friend, an ADA, who once told me such cases were collateral damage done "for the greater good." Be afraid, be oh so very afraid.

Houston DWI Attorney Paul B. Kennedy, said...

Thank you for the comment. I believe there is more harm done "for the greater good" than by any other method.

Anonymous said...

I deplore injustice myself, but I was wondering if the psuedo science of bite mark analysis, handwriting identification, or tire tread identification were to exonerate someone charged with a crime and prove them innocent, if it would be considered pseudo science by you. It seems that lazy, inept unethical people are more to blame than the evidence that can be proven often by a demonstrative demonstration. Bad lawyers, bad doctors, bad experts, bad anything are the problem. Not the scales of justice per se. As angry as we all get, some people will continue to do a crappy job of their job and if we don't remove them we should not expect better. Sad thing is bad doctors kill.

Houston DWI Attorney Paul B. Kennedy, said...

Good point, Anonymous No. 2. I do agree that the quality of representation is an important factor in these cases. One cannot begin to analyze how things went south in this case without noting how incompetent Mr. Willingham's trial counsel was.

Having said that, I have a big problem with "scientific evidence" that is more "art" than science. True science is defined by rigorous testing and retesting of hypotheses and theorems - not relying on some gut feeling that something isn't right.

This case is a perfect example of that. The theories posited by Vasquez could have, and should have, been subjected to rigorous experimentation -- but they weren't.

Eric in Seattle said...

I just read about Willingham in the New Yorker, and I am amazed at the incompetence of the system at many points along the way. It appears that the governor and the clemency board never even read Hurst's report. The prosecutor's recent attempt to rebut the New Yorker article sounded like grasping at straws, further adding to the impression that Willingham was innocent.

Although I am no legal scholar, I found it disturbing when the Supreme Court recently ruled that defendants do not have a right to DNA testing after they've been convicted. Apparently Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas think that all that matters is that the procedural rules were followed, and the person's actual guilt or innocence is not important.

There have been numerous other cases of exoneration many years after the fact, and cases where a reasonable doubt exists, e.g. Ruben Cantu, Gary Graham, Carlos Luna....