Tag Archives: Huffington Post

How much doubt is reasonable?

Earlier this week, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review published its Spring 2012 issue with an article that strongly suggests Carlos DeLuna was innocent of the crime for which the State of Texas executed him.

Today, Michael McLaughlin writes in The Huffington Post that

A Texas judge who reviewed the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham planned to posthumously exonerate the father who was put to death for killing his three daughters in a house fire.

When the conversation turns to the possible execution of an innocent person, Willingham’s name and case is often cited. Willingham’s home in Corsican, Texas burned on 23 December 1991. His three daughters, trapped inside, died. He escaped. His wife was away at the time.

The investigation concluded the fire was deliberately set and an accelerant used. Two weeks after the blaze, the authorities arrested Willingham. He maintained his innocence and turned down a plea bargain that offered him life in prison.

At his 1992 trial, the fire investigators testified Willingham had set the fire. A jailhouse informant also asserted that he had heard Willingham admit to the act while they were in jail together. The jury convicted Willingham. His execution took place in 2004.

Doubts about Willingham’s guilt persisted through the years. The informant recanted in 2000. Forensic evidence has developed over the years.

Shortly before Willingham’s execution, his attorney contacted Gerald Hurst a fire science expert and chemist who does  pro bono arson defense work. In a 2010 interview related to a Frontline film titled Death by Fire, Hurst defines his role as seeing “that the defendant gets a fair trial; that all the cards are put on the table.”

Hurst submitted a report days before Willingham’s execution that stated the house fire was not arson although it did not identify a cause. He sums up the report in the 2010 interview:

But what I do know 100 percent is that there is not a single bit of evidence that this was an incendiary fire, that it was started by human hands.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry received the report. He denied a reprieve and the execution took place.

Michael McLaughlin, writing today in The Huffington Post, reports that the new arson evidence and the change in the testimony of the jailhouse witness convinced District Court Judge Charlie Baird in 2010 that “Texas wrongfully convicted” Willingham. Baird even went so far as to put together a document exonerating Willingham. The order “never became official, because a higher court halted the posthumous inquiry while it considered whether the judge [Baird] had authority to examine the capital case.” McLaughlin continues:

While waiting for permission to finish the case from the Third Court of Appeals, Baird put together the document that “orders the exoneration of Cameron Todd Willingham for murdering his three daughters,” because of “overwhelming, credible and reliable evidence” presented during a one-day hearing in Austin in October 2010.

“You can’t do anything for Willingham except clear his name,” Baird told The Huffington Post. “When they tried Willingham, I’m convinced that everyone worked in good faith. The problem is that up until the execution, everything had changed so dramatically that you realized the science relied upon at trial was not reliable enough to take a man’s life.”

Baird’s intended order never came to light because the court of appeals criticized his handling of the case  and prevented him from resuming work on it before he left the bench at the end of 2010 after choosing not to seek re-election. No one asked him for it after the court of appeals blocked him, he said.

Lawyers for Willingham’s family continue to pursue a pardon that would clear his name, working with The Innocence Project.

The revelations of the week lead me to wonder: does it take absolute proof that an innocent person has been executed to lead our society to ponder seriously the abolition of the death penalty? Or is reasonable doubt enough? If so, how much?

See you along the Trail.

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Filed under Capital Punishment, Current Events, Death Penalty, Human Rights

Trayvon Martin

From ColorOfChange.org. I took the action. Will you?

Read this moments ago from the Huffington Post: The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have opened an investigation into the “facts and circumstances” surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed last month by a neighborhood watch captain in an Orlando suburb.

I think the action remains important as a way of reminding the Department of Justice that we are watching.

Three weeks ago, 17-year old Trayvon Martin was gunned down by self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Despite Zimmerman admitting to following, confronting, and killing Trayvon, he has yet to be arrested or charged with any crime.[1]

Just minutes before Trayvon was killed, Zimmerman had called police stating that Trayvon looked “suspicious.” Trayvon was unarmed and walking back to his father’s home in Sanford, Florida when Zimmerman accosted him.

At the crime scene, Sanford police botched their questioning of Zimmerman, refused to take the full statements of witnesses, and pressured neighbors to side with the shooter’s claim of self-defense.[2] As it turns out, Sanford’s police department has a history of failing to hold perpetrators accountable for violent acts against Black victims and the police misconduct in Trayvon’s case exemplifies the department’s systemic mishandling of such investigations.[3] And now, the State Attorney’s office has rubber-stamped the Sanford police’s non-investigation, claiming that there is not enough evidence to support even a manslaughter conviction.[4]

Trayvon’s family and hundreds of thousands of people around the country are demanding justice.[5] Please join us in calling on the Department of Justice to take over the case, arrest Trayvon’s killer, and launch an independent investigation into the Sanford police department’s unwillingness to protect Trayvon’s civil rights. It takes just a moment:


Walking home from the store shouldn’t cost you your life, but when Black youth are routinely assumed to be violent criminals, being randomly killed is a constant danger.[6] Before Zimmerman decided to get out of his parked car — gun in tow — to pursue Trayvon on foot that night, he called the police to identify Trayvon as a “suspicious person” — apparently because he was wearing a hoodie and walking too slowly in the rain for Zimmerman’s liking. Despite being instructed not to follow Trayvon, Zimmerman proceeded to confront and fatally shoot the boy in the chest within a matter of minutes.[7]

The case has been compromised from the beginning. When Sanford police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman was first approached by a narcotics detective — not a homicide investigator — who “peppered him with questions” rather than allowing him to tell his story without prompting. Another officer “corrected” a witness giving a statement that she’d heard Trayvon cry for help before he was shot, telling her she had heard Zimmerman instead.[8] And beyond the questions of professional competence or even the police’s disregard for the facts, Florida’s notorious “Shoot First” law takes a shooter’s self-defense claim at face value — incentivizing law enforcement not to make arrests in shooting deaths that would lead to murder charges in other states.[9]

Sanford has a history of not prosecuting when the victim is Black. In 2010, the white son of a Sanford police lieutenant was let go by police after assaulting a homeless Black man outside a downtown bar. And, in 2005, a Black teenager was killed by two white security guards, one the son of a Sanford Police officer. The pair was arrested and charged, but a judge later cited lack of evidence and dismissed both cases.[10]

Please join us in calling on the Department of Justice to arrest Trayvon’s killer and launch an investigation into the Sanford police department’s mishandling of the case and when you do, ask your friends and family to do the same:




1. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/15/2696446/trayvon-martin-case.html
2. http://abcnews.go.com/US/neighborhood-watch-shooting-trayvon-martin-probe-reveals-questionable/story?id=15907136#.T2QwBWJWrQI
3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/14/trayvon-martin-sanford-florida_n_1345868.html
4. http://www.wesh.com/news/30692415/detail.html
5. http://abcnews.go.com/US/trayvon-martin-family-seeks-fbi-investigation-killing/story?id=15949879#.T2aTkZggugE
6. http://www.democracynow.org/2012/2/8/ramarley_graham_nypd_slays_unarmed_black
7. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-03-14/news/os-trayvon-martin-beth-kassab-031512-20120314_1_orlando-police-block-captains-zimmerman
8. See reference 2.
9. http://www.tallahassee.com/article/20120316/OPINION05/203160343/Teen-s-death-suggests-review-Stand-Your-Ground-Law-needed?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|frontpage|s
10. http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime/article1128317.ece


Filed under Human Rights