A Texas appeals court has ordered a halt to a district court’s inquiry into whether Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for setting a 1992 fire that killed his three daughters, was innocent. The stay was sought by Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson. It’s merely the latest attempt by Texas officials (Thompson’s office prosecuted Willingham), including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, to stave off any formal inquiry into Willingham’s execution. Arson specialists now say Willingham was convicted based on flawed and outdated science, and there’s little forensic evidence to support the theory that the fire was set intentionally.
Meanwhile, Texas District Attorney Lynn Switzer told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that the state should be able to execute Hank Skinner without first turning over crime scene evidence for DNA testing that Skinner says will prove his innocence. The Court has already ruled that there’s no constitutional right to DNA testing in such cases. Skinner is arguing that the state is obligated to turn over the evidence under federal civil rights law. (I previously wrote about Skinner’s case here and here.)
The striking thing about both cases is that Texas government officials are staking out a position of ignorance. That is, they don’t want to know if either man is innocent. That’s not how they’d phrase it, of course. But in the Willingham case they’re thwarting efforts merely to investigate the possibility that the Wilingham might have been innocent. In the Skinner case they’re fighting a DNA test—which Skinner’s attorneys have offered to pay for themselves—that if prosecutors are correct would undeniably establish Skinner’s guilt. But there’s a chance it could implicate someone else, or complicate their case against Skinner. So they’d rather not test.
Of course in both cases they know that a finding of innocence would further undermine support for the death penalty (which is now under fire even from establishment conservatives). So it’s better just not to know.
Perry, Thompson, Switzer, and their cohorts should consider the possibility that their callous indifference in the face of considerable doubt about both men’s convictions—and that even after the Willingham fiasco they’re still fighting to execute Skinner without being absolutely sure of his guilt—only confirms suspicions that we have a flawed system stacked with perverse incentives, all of which not only encourages the pursuit of convictions at the expense of justice, but then pressures state actors to double down rather than admit to the possibility that they made mistakes.
Put another way, in fighting to keep us all in the dark about Skinner and Willingham’s actual guilt, these staunch capital punishment supporters are providing data points for the strongest arguments against the death penalty.