Saturday, September 05, 2009

A very strange week for the death penalty

Last week was a very strange week for both supporters and opponents of the death penalty.

Last Thursday (August 28) brought news of the case of Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped at 11 and held in sexual slavery for 18 years by Phillip Garrido, and his wife, Nancy. I'm sure that many opponents of the death penalty, upon learning the details of this horrific case, would gladly volunteer to press the button to start the drip to execute Garrido. The Garrido case is a perfect example of why voters in many states consistently support the death penalty.

Then, just two days later, evidence emerged that the State of Texas had executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham back in 2004. The jury in the case took less than 1 hour to convict the man based on the testimony of arson investigators. Even though evidence mounted over the years that Willingham was in fact innocent, the State of Texas proceeded with the execution anyway. Now a new report has found that:

...the official inquiry into the Willingham fire did not meet prevailing scientific standards of the time, much less current ones.The investigators “had poor understandings of fire science,” Mr. Beyler said, and their “methodologies did not comport with the scientific method.” He determined that the opinions of one main investigator were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

The Willingham case is a perfect example of why the death penalty should be abolished.

And so there, it seems, we are left -- with a criminal (Garrido) so heinous that he deserves to die a thousand painful deaths and a criminal justice system so flawed that it can't be trusted not to execute the innocent (Willingham) along with the guilty.

Update #1: The September 7, 2009 edition of The New Yorker has an extensive article on the details in the Willingham case: "Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute An Innocent Man?" Often, articles on The New Yorker site are behind the subscription pay wall -- but this one is available free, at least for now. It's brilliantly written and meticulously documented.

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