I am not a supporter of the death penalty. It is not that I think there are no crimes where the proper punishment is death, there are things that some humans do to others from which there is no coming back. There are people who are so damaged that they will continually damage and kill those around them. For these few, it seems the prudent course is to make sure they can never hurt anyone else again and the only way to really do that is to take their lives. The problem is not in the concept as it much as it is in the practical application of the death penalty.
If we are going to execute anyone, then we must be 100% sure we do not execute anyone who is actually innocent of the crime they are convicted of. In our system of justice this is a near impossibility and for that reason alone we should not have the death penalty. Many of the District Attorney posts in this nation are elected ones. This leads to pressure for these prosecutors to get convictions and be “tough on crime”. That alone can distort the arch of justice. Then there is the issue of racism in this country. No matter how far we have come there is a far greater chance of a person of color being convicted of any crime than a white person. This is especially true in cases which typically are brought with the death penalty.
In the last 20 years more than 200 prisoners on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence alone. Think about that for a second, there were 200 people we had convicted and sentenced to death who did not do it! They were innocent of the crime we were going to kill them for.
This brings us to the odious Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. In 2004 the State of Texas executed Cameron Willingham. He was accused of setting an arson fire which killed his three children. At trial the prosecutors relied heavily on supposed expert testimony of “expert fire investigators”. In a recent New Yorker Article David Grann lays out the case that the “experts” were in fact no such thing and made multiple mistakes in their investigation of the fire and their testimony. Using a report written by a noted fire scientist who called the investigation “junk science” Mr. Willingham appealed for clemency to the Texas Clemency Board. The Board denied his request, even though they had exonerated another death row inmate with a similar report from the scientist. When Mr. Willingham appealed Governor Perry, he was also denied clemency. The Governor stated the denial was “based on the evidence of the case”.
In 2005 Texas established a commission to look into the use of forensic evidence in criminal proceedings. One of the first cases which were investigated was Mr. Willingham’s. A fire scientist named Craig Beyler was hired by the commission to review the investigation. He wrote a scathing report saying:
“The arson investigators had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.”
This is a real problem for Gov. Perry. The whole concept behind the death penalty is that they would not execute a factually innocent person. Now Gov. Perry is trying to sink an investigation which is likely to say he signed off of the execution of an innocent man.
The Chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission was not reappointed by Gov. Perry to the post, right before he was about to have a public hearing with Craig Beyler testifying as to the shoddy evidence which was used in convicting Mr. Willingham. In addition Gov. Perry appointed three new members, one being a new chair who is a hard line conservative prosecutor. This new Chair promptly canceled Mr. Beyler’s testimony, citing the need to “get up to speed”.
If this seems fishy to you, you are not alone. It has since come out that the former Chair of the commission, Mr. Sam Bassett has recently told the Chicago Tribune that the Governors office had previously tried to pressure him. He had been summoned to the to two meetings with Gov. Perry’s top lawyers who told him explicitly they were not happy with the direction the investigation was going.
This keeps getting worse for the Texas Governor. His office has refused to release records requested by the Huston Chronicle which would indicate if anyone in the office or the Governor himself had reviewed the new report just hours before Mr. Willingham’s execution. In politics the cover up is always more damaging than the action. It seems Gov. Perry has forgotten this.
This story is still developing, but one thing seems clear, the State of Texas and Gov. Perry for whatever reasons failed in their responsibility to make sure they were not executing an innocent man. They took Mr. Willingham’s life, perhaps through hubris, perhaps for political reasons, perhaps from laziness, but in the end they are responsible for the actions which lead to his death. This could affect Gov. Perry’s reelection chances as he faces Sen. Bailey-Hutchins for the Republican nomination. His actions to date seem to indicate something to hide which he feels could be damaging to him.
In the end it is likely Gov. Perry will try to brazen it out, standing by the “tough on crime” mantra which is a core Republican belief. For the rest of us it should be just one more nail in the coffin of the death penalty. Who can support a punishment which is irrevocable and can not be fairly applied?
The floor is yours.
“Originally posted at Squarestate.net“