Posted by: citizenroe | October 30, 2009

Convicting and killing the innocent

Almost everyone has a strong opinion about the death penalty. Most Americans favor its use for heinous crimes. I find myself in the minority, but I have always opposed the death penalty. From the first time I gave it some thought as a teenager all the way through today. However one views the moral or religious questions about it, many would be interested to know that the death penalty may have been used in cases where the convicted was actually innocent.

In my youth, I was passionate about opposing capital punishment on moral and religious grounds. These days, I am more pragmatic-but no less passionate-it costs taxpayers three times more to carry out a death sentence compared to a life sentence and more and more it appears we cannot be sure it is being used in a way that even supporters can trust.

The U.S. criminal justice system is fallible and sometimes corrupt. Through my own professional experience, I have witnessed many weaknesses within it and have seen convictions based on little more than a prosecutor’s moral authority. The conventional wisdom of the typical American if a person is arrested and especially if they are prosecuted, they must be guilty. That sharp-looking, smart DA would not waste their time on this case if the defendant wasn’t guilty, would he? This is particularly true if a defendant has prior convictions or a bad reputation in a small town. I view expert witnesses and eyewitnesses with a great deal of skepticism. My opinion of these witnesses is unlikely to change without considerable reform to the system. Prosecutors would hate to have me on their jury because I truly do believe in innocent until proven guilty.

Can we trust these experts, prosecutors, and others in the criminal justice system to do things right? Many times, yes, we can, but there must be improvement to prevent the state from committing heinous crimes of its own. Take for example, my own home state of Texas. Over the last few years the facts have begun to show that there is a systemic problem with wrongful convictions. These convictions were based on false testimony from forensics specialists, informants, and eyewitnesses, false confessions, suppression of evidence, and use of unreliable, unscientific, or unproven forensic methods. Texas has had more wrongful convictions exposed by DNA evidence than any other U.S. state.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the Harris County DNA Lab was shut down in 2002 after an audit “uncovered shoddy science, under-trained employees and a leaking roof, which raised questions about the accuracy of the lab’s work.” Problems with validity, accuracy, and credibility have led Texas to reverse convictions of 39 people who had served a total of more than 584 years in prison by the time they were cleared. Harris is by no means the only one with problems; Dallas and 10 others have uncovered wrongful convictions based on DNA evidence. For more information, see The Justice Project’s report Texas Justice Derailed: Convicting the Innocent.

I recently read David Grann’s article Trial by Fire in the New Yorker and was appalled by the incompetence by the original investigators in this Texas death penalty case. I am sickened by the ability of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Texas Governor Rick Perry to ignore critical scientific evidence that should have been cause for a stay of execution in the Willingham case. The report of acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, Dr. Gerald Hurst, was completely ignored by the Board of Pardon and Paroles followed by being disregarded by Governor Rick Perry. Dr. Hurst’s report showed the ineptitude and quackery applied by the original fire “sleuths” was complete “junk science.” He found no evidence of arson in the fire that killed the convicted man’s three children and Todd Willingham was about to die for it anyway. Hurst’s evaluation was that the fire was likely due to an electrical short. He rushed his report to the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Parole for consideration in Willingham’s plea for a stay or clemency.

On February 17, 2004 Todd Willingham was executed by lethal injection by the State of Texas. Both the Board and the Governor either never read the report or completely disregarded the scientific proof and conclusions found in Dr. Hurst’s investigation. They denied Willingham’s request for clemency and a stay of execution. Citizens of this state, this country, and even the entire world should be horrified by what has happened. Texas began its own investigations into this case and others to see if there was misconduct, fraud, or mistakes made by forensic investigators. Perhaps the State of Texas will step up to their moral duty and accept responsibility for use of the death penalty to kill innocent people. I will be proud of my state if it does, but I will not be surprised if Gov. Perry and his political cronies close ranks and deny their negligence for their own self-preservation.

What do you expect to be the outcome of this situation?



  1. Please review my article on Trial By Fire, as well as some others

    It is also important to know what “exoneration” means in this context.

    The 130 (now 139) death row “innocents” scam

  2. Commenting on my blog would be much more interesting and productive if it consisted of some content or conversation. I visited your site and your opinion on these matters is clearly opposite mine.

    However, you do seem sincere in your position and I respect that you have researched the issues and details here.

    As for the meaning of exoneration, I can only speak for myself there. My assessment here is that we convicted someone who should not have been. I consider him innocent because guilt has never actually been proved. That may not mean that he committed no crime, though. The most important point to me is that my state often convicts people without meeting the burden of proof that is the standard. Therefore, we have no business using the death penalty.

    I have lived in Texas all my life, both in cities and small towns and I know from first-hand work experience that when someone within the system (DAs, Sheriff, Police Chief, Officers, Deputies, Probation Officers, etc.) decide they know the truth and an individual “did” the crime, most of time the evidence or facts have little to do with the case – it usually hinges on the person in authority asserting guilt and jurors believing in that authority over all others.

    Blind trust in authority is never a good thing on either side of an issue.


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