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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

 
In Your Name

by digby

I knew several decades ago that it was going to be hard for me deal with the fact that the US had reverted to being a barbaric death penalty nation. Not that there is any dearth of very bad people who deserve to die here, but the idea that our clunky justice system was capable of sorting out such things in anything resembling a just manner seemed impossible to me. The moral implications of the state taking lives of people who are securely locked up as a matter of self-defense is completely illogical, although I guess most people believe there is some value in demonstrating the "eye for and eye" concept as a deterrent. I haven't seen any evidence that this works, but it's an intuitive thing that most people seem to feel is important.

Still, reagrdless of where you stand on the morality of executing guilty people, justice is a joke when the state arbitrarily takes the lives of some guilty people and not others and subjects citizens to the capriciousness of a patchwork of laws that vary from one state to the next. It only gets worse when one considers the inevitability of human error, capriciousness and plain old malevolence of those in authority. But nothing in all that compares to the absolute certainty that the state executes innocent people, which is a moral nightmare of such epic proportions that it still stuns me to think that any civilized country would do such a thing. (Well, maybe not so much anymore --- after all, we are back to torture now, too.)

Many death penalty proponents have always argued that it hasn't happened, that among the thousands of people the United States has executed, none were innocent. It's always been a fatuous claim, considering how many prisoners have been released from death row due to factual innocence, although the pro death people have always said that "proves" that the system works.

Well, we now have proof that it did happen. And it's the most horrifying story you can imagine, of a man who was convicted and executed for killing his own children in a fire by incompetent police work, witnesses who changed their version of events once the police focused on the suspect, and a jailhouse snitch. He didn't do it.
In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. The first cases that are being reviewed by the commission are those of Willingham and Willis. In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case 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.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.” The commission is reviewing his findings, and plans to release its own report next year. Some legal scholars believe that the commission may narrowly assess the reliability of the scientific evidence. There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”

Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he was asked if he had any last words. He said, “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.”

It's not like the authorities didn't have notice of this before he was executed. They did. They just didn't pay attention. And even if they hadn't known about it, it wouldn't take away the horrifying guilt of the state of Texas executing an innocent person in cold ritualistic fashion, after a long, drawn out period of mental and physical torture in prison. It's not like they didn't have an alternative.

There are some thing which the law is simply inadequate to do. Determining to an absolute certainty that someone is guilty is certainly possible. But it's also possible for that same system to make the same determination that that someone is guilty who isn't. You can't allow people's lives to be taken under a system like that and call it justice.


Read the whole article. It's important.


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