Texas Officials Continue Coverup of One Possible Wrongful Execution; Fight To Proceed With Another

Friday, October 15th, 2010

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 Arson specialists now say Willingham was convicted based on flawed and outdated science, and there’s little forensic evidence to support the theory that the fire was set intentionally.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.

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43 Responses to “Texas Officials Continue Coverup of One Possible Wrongful Execution; Fight To Proceed With Another”

  1. #1 |  Joe | 

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

  2. #2 |  Cynical in CA | 

    Funny, I was always under the impression that the strongest argument against the death penalty was that killing a person is wrong.

  3. #3 |  Joe | 

    Killing a person is sometimes justified (self defense). But the strongest argument against the death penalty is it can be applied to someone who is not guilty of the crime (and there is no reversing that).

  4. #4 |  Adam | 

    Hmm, not to mention that if Skinner’s innocent, they’re fighting to keep a murderer on the streets! How soft on crime of them!

  5. #5 |  Cynical in CA | 

    How is a State execution self-defense, Joe? It’s not, so that point is irrelevant.

    Not to parse words, but the death penalty cannot be applied to someone who is “not guilty” of the crime as determined by jury verdict.

    To be clear, you’re saying that someone who didn’t commit the crime could be found “guilty” and executed — a good argument against the death penalty, but one that still falls under the umbrella of the evil of killing a person.

  6. #6 |  Michael MD | 

    Cynical,

    As yo pointed out, juries can get it wrong, especially after their psyches are manipulated by lawyers, that want to win at all costs? I took it as “not guilty” written in the comment you are criticizing, as referring to the fact that the “guilty verdict” was, very likely, wrong, in those two cases. He also did not imply that the execution was self defense. You are altering his comment, or is it “parsing words”?

    How would anarchists deal with this problem?

  7. #7 |  Michael Chaney | 

    That is, they don’t want to know if either man is innocent.

    Radley, you’re being too kind with the passive. I would go a step further with the active and say “they want to not know if either man is innocent”.

    It’s looking more and more like these are “you can’t handle the truth” moments.

  8. #8 |  jeebus | 

    Radley,

    I used to be a fervent proponent of the death penalty and would like to thank Reason magazine and you for for prompting me to flip flop in the past couple/few years. The ignorance and depravity of the ruling political/legal class is nothing short of horrifying and there is no way we can trust them with this ultimate sanction when they go out of their way to mislead, obfuscate, and outright fabricate if it helps advance their corrupt ideology and personal careers.

    Every glare I now direct at a police officer and the doubtful sneer on my face when I read about a new prosecution is at minimum 50% due to you.

    Kudos and keep up the great work.

  9. #9 |  EH | 

    The phrase “guilty enough” comes to mind.

  10. #10 |  Matt | 

    The best argument against capital punishment is that the state is not competent to execute citizens. When prosecutors appear indifferent as to whether they are trying to execute innocent people, it affirms this argument. When convicted people are exonerated by DNA evidence, it affirms this argument. This argument doesn’t have to prove executions are morally wrong, which is hard to do, only that the state cannot be trusted to do the job correctly.

  11. #11 |  MikeZ | 

    Cynical,
    “How is a State execution self-defense, Joe? It’s not, so that point is irrelevant.”

    It isn’t but I believe Joe’s response was in rebuttal to your “killing a person is wrong”. It is relevant to that posting.

    Personally I’d strongly disagree with the “killing is wrong” argument against the death penalty. The sole reason I am against the death penalty is lack of absolute proof of guilt. I still believe there are crimes heinous enough that deserve the death penalty but unless I personally witnessed the crime and accompanied the defendant through the booking process I’d probably never be able to vote for it.

  12. #12 |  PeeDub | 

    I’d generally agree that killing is wrong. However, sometimes you have to add up the wrongs and take the least wrong sum.

    The death penalty for me is still in the “most wrong” column.

  13. #13 |  Rodney Caston | 

    the killing a person is wrong argument is less powerful than simply pointing out the fact that a proven at times corrupt, and proven at times incompetent justice system will result in proven at times convictions.

    All it takes is one of those wrongful convictions to involve a death penalty sentence that is carried out – and then we’re all guilty of murder.

  14. #14 |  Rodney Caston | 

    typo ‘at times wrongful convictions’

  15. #15 |  ktc2 | 

    These evil bastards have known all along that there was a damn good chance they were executing innocent people with their “justice” system. Now it’s just about keeping the truth from coming out while they are still in office.

  16. #16 |  Michael Chaney | 

    As for the death penalty itself, I have no problem with it. I just don’t trust any justice system anywhere to properly apply it. I think most people would agree with the execution of, say, Timothy McVeigh. How about OJ?

    It’s obvious that we’ve killed more than one innocent person in this country, and one is too many. Added to that is the fact that pursuing a death penalty case costs more than just locking the offender up for life. For what? It’s just not worth it.

  17. #17 |  Marc | 

    I support the death penalty, and things like this really piss me off. If anything gets capital punishment removed nationwide, it’s bullshit cases like these where the prosecutors are afraid to learn the truth and possibly admit they executed some innocent people. Obviously cases where the person is still yet ot be executed are the more dire, but I think both of these cases do more to undermine support of the death penalty than any speech or argument that you could give. Because the idea that the government has put innocents to death, and put them to death while purposely ignoring or even hiding possible evidence that could help the accused…is just chilling.

    If someone really is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and any available DNA evidence, etc… has been examined. And if they REALLY deserve a death sentence (mass murderer, for example), then I think they should be removed from this earth. But…no sane person can support this bullshit.

  18. #18 |  Marc | 

    Meant to add…

    I know cases from decades ago may have legitimately not been able to test things as well as we can today, and the accused in some of those cases may have already died. But I think people would have a lot more faith in the system if it was actually impartial and only sought the truth, even if it meant reviewing old cases and finding out mistakes were made. It’s that they hide that information that makes the death penalty so unpalatable.

  19. #19 |  delta | 

    Strongly agree with this post. Wrongful deaths are perhaps the most egregious reason why state executions are really unacceptable.

  20. #20 |  André | 

    I always argue against the death penalty on purely fiscal terms. The total cost to taxpayers is demonstrably higher to execute a prisoner than to incarcerate them for life without the possibility of parole.

    X dollars per year times Y years avg. life expectancy is less than Z dollars of execution (court, appeal, and interim incarceration) costs.

    The question I then pose is: “If it’s cheaper to lock people up and let them die in prison, what reason do we have to kill them in a more expensive way?”

    Using “morality” as an argument when the other person obviously holds different morals is not very effective.

    [I remember reading that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is better translated as “You shall not murder” but I would rather not argue about religion.]

  21. #21 |  Cynical in CA | 

    #6 | Michael MD — “How would anarchists deal with this problem?”

    Presuming you’re referring to the death penalty, I’ve always felt that adequate self-defense tools such as a sidearm combined with ostracism would do the trick nicely, if imperfectly. But then, the death penalty is rather imperfect too, so my solution is not inferior in that regard, and my solution adheres to the non-aggression principle.

    I know, I know. It’s too pie-in-the-sky. So let the killing continue. It’s so much better that way.

  22. #22 |  Cynical in CA | 

    #10 | Matt — “The best argument against capital punishment is that the state is not competent to execute citizens…. This argument doesn’t have to prove executions are morally wrong, which is hard to do, only that the state cannot be trusted to do the job correctly.”

    I can tell this is going to be one of those “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” kind of days.

    The State will do whatever it damn well pleases, it doesn’t care a whit whether you think it’s competent or trustworthy. That much should be understood here by now.

    The only way to eliminate the death penalty is to make the moral argument, which is only difficult because 21st-Century Americans are by-and-large too chickenshit to stand up for themselves and embrace freedom and morality — real non-violent morality.

    It will take a revolution in people’s thinking and attitudes to eliminate the State. Until then, some people will satisfy themselves with cheap and easy half-ass “reforms” and call it “progress.” The death penalty is a symptom of the violent rot at the core of American society. It is here to stay until individuals across America decide to live differently.

  23. #23 |  Kris | 

    Does anyone know or can point me toward the state’s arguments in these cases?

    Without knowing, I’m assuming it’s the usual facile “undue burden on the system!” whine, if not merely a “haha! too late!” one.

  24. #24 |  Stephen | 

    I used to be in favor of the death penalty but not anymore. Life without parole accomplishes the same result with less expense. The only thing it does not accomplish is vengeance.

    The christian pro death penalty crowd should read this a few more times,

    http://bible.cc/romans/12-19.htm

    Just as the christian anti-pot crowd should read Genesis 1:29 a few more times,

  25. #25 |  Joe | 

    Cynical,
    “How is a State execution self-defense, Joe? It’s not, so that point is irrelevant.”

    It isn’t but I believe Joe’s response was in rebuttal to your “killing a person is wrong”. It is relevant to that posting.

    Thanks and yes, of course. Cynical likes to throw out big broad statements and then fein shock that people call him on it. Buy hey, he is an anarchist, so I get it.

    Cynical’s later anarchist suggestion, however, works fine for me too.

  26. #26 |  Cynical in CA | 

    I resemble that remark Joe.

    I’m glad you and I agree that there are non-violent solutions to problems that the State presently solves with aggressive force.

  27. #27 |  Joe | 

    Cynical, I saw this book recommendation by McArdle today and when I read it immediatley thought of you.

    As in you saying, no, hell no, NO!

  28. #28 |  JOR | 

    “The best argument against capital punishment is that the state is not competent to execute citizens.”

    Well, I guess they could get better at executing us, but I’m not so sure that’d make the death penalty a better thing to have.

    What’s the strongest argument against the death penalty?

    I guess that depends on the audience. In today’s world, everybody’s instinctive, trained-from-birth reaction to moral arguments is to blanche and say something irrelevant like “but who says?” or “but *I* don’t have a problem with X” wave it off (and then in the next breath make questionable pseudo-moral pseudo-arguments like appeals to Duh Law or entreatments to follow the rules). So arguments about the morality of killing people, or of killing people in self-defense, or of killing people as punishment, or of killing people just to shed some blood for blood what was shed, are all pretty weak arguments. So, too, are arguments about the state’s competence to “get the right guy”. Today, it’s all about how much it costs, and how much it deters undesired behavior. And executing people who are convicted of X has roughly the same deterrent effect (if any) whether they are actually factually guilty or not.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean those are bad arguments. They’re just not very strong or persuasive arguments, given the audience. I actually don’t think there are any strong arguments against the death penalty, again, given the audience. I think there are plenty of very good arguments, and I tend to think the best arguments are the more basic moral appeals – it’s just wrong to kill someone who is not an active threat to life or limb, no matter how bad he is or how much your emotions demand blood and pain be shed. And really, the arguments that have the best chance for being strong arguments are the ones that engage people’s moral intuitions directly, not the piddling about over how much the appeals system costs or whatever (9/10 people would probably just want to be rid of the appeals system before they got rid of the death penalty anyway, due process be damned). And I really think arguments relying on cases of questionable convictions or factual guilt, while very good arguments, are actually the weakest arguments of all given the audience and American culture. They can always be rationalized (“well if they got arrested they were probably bad people anyway, so who cares, and it sends a message either way”) or just waved off (“isolated incidents!”).

  29. #29 |  Alex | 

    Cynical:
    “The State will do whatever it damn well pleases, it doesn’t care a whit whether you think it’s competent or trustworthy”
    If we get rid of the death penalty, then in the area of the death penalty, it won’t be able to whatever it pleases. I think it really undermines your convincingness that you dogmatically over-generalize about the EVILNESS of “The State.” Instead you should convince us that the violations of rights inherent to any government system are more severe than the violations of rights that would result with anarchy. Or something like that. Not to be too arrogant.

  30. #30 |  supercat | 

    //X dollars per year times Y years avg. life expectancy is less than Z dollars of execution (court, appeal, and interim incarceration) costs.//

    Do all of the extra appeals contribute usefully toward the exoneration of innocent people? If any of them do not, they would seem pointless. And if any of them do, why should not similar appeals be available to those “only” sentenced to life without parole, whose guilt should be even less cerain than the guilt of those sentenced to death? If someone’s going to die in prison, does it really matter whether it takes a year or sixty? Either way, the government destroyed their life (hopefully deservedly).

    The death penalty is sometimes needed, but those who abuse positions of power should receive it first.

  31. #31 |  MikeZ | 

    supercat,
    That has always been my problem with the argument that executions are wrong because of the expense. I really don’t see any justification for spending less money on some guy in for life without parole than somebody with the death penalty. So while I’m reluctantly against the death penalty, I’d still say it SHOULD be cheaper to execute them than to keep them locked up for life. The same legal costs should be incurred either way and a needle full of chemicals to kill you is obviously cheaper a lifetime of food/housing/chemicals to extend your life. So the fact implementing the death penalty is cheaper seems like an even bigger problem with our justice system. Considering the relatively few people on death row, I’d say for every innocent man on death row there are probably many more innocents sitting in jail for life.

  32. #32 |  Cynical in CA | 

    #28 | JOR — “I tend to think the best arguments are the more basic moral appeals – it’s just wrong to kill someone who is not an active threat to life or limb, no matter how bad he is or how much your emotions demand blood and pain be shed. And really, the arguments that have the best chance for being strong arguments are the ones that engage people’s moral intuitions directly …”

    100% agreement, JOR. Everything else is utilitarianism.

  33. #33 |  Cynical in CA | 

    #29 | Alex

    Cynical: “The State will do whatever it damn well pleases, it doesn’t care a whit whether you think it’s competent or trustworthy”

    Alex: “If we get rid of the death penalty, then in the area of the death penalty, it won’t be able to whatever it pleases. I think it really undermines your convincingness that you dogmatically over-generalize about the EVILNESS of “The State.” Instead you should convince us that the violations of rights inherent to any government system are more severe than the violations of rights that would result with anarchy. Or something like that. Not to be too arrogant.”

    No worries, Alex. But I do notice that your statement is very conditional. When your premise (citizen-induced abolition of the death penalty) is fulfilled, I’ll be better able to address the consequences you list.

    As for the evilness of the State, the very definition of State (that entity with a monopoly on initiative force in a given geographical area) denotes evil from a violence/aggression viewpoint, which is the foundation of the bedrock morality I propound, namely that initiating violence against another human being outside of extremely narrow conditions of self-defense is evil. Most normal people are raised to believe that. Call it “dogma” if you wish, that doesn’t invalidate the principle.

    Not to reinvent the wheel, and I admit to using shorthand as it has been some time since I last compared/contrasted statism and anarchy here, but my basic theory is that violence (really control, the instinct to control one’s environment, including other humans) is written into the code of human existence; i.e., human beings will now and forever be violent (controlling) creatures who must somehow live together peacefully.

    So, what is the best way to organize society? By (foolishly, I believe) trying to contain that violence by “delegating” it (there is no real delegation in the end, it’s a usurpation) to an unaccountable superagency known as the State? Or by distributing it evenly across all of human society by reserving sovereignty for the individual?

    For those who comprise the State, the answer is obvious — status quo, as no one in that position would risk the loss of control they currently possess. For those who erroneously believe they comprise the State (We the People!), the same answer applies but for more emotional reasons.

    The shame is that the latter group is the main recipient of State violence, and I believe things could not possibly be worse if that violence were evenly distributed across the population (anarchy).

    The State is very clever, it divides and conquers. Back to the original point, when the death penalty is forbidden to the State by the individuals of this country, I will tip my hat to you and re-evaluate the nature of sovereignty in the US.

  34. #34 |  Texas Officials Continue Coverup of One Possible Wrongful … – Texas Officials Continue Coverup of One Possible Wrongful … – Texas judge hears arson case that could prove wrongful execution … – and more « Death Pen | 

    […] 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. visit. […]

  35. #35 |  Greg | 

    Look folks,

    It’s Texas.

    They don’t really wish to be part of the USA (as they are a ‘Republic’ not a State and constantly harp on that fact).

    Let us give them their wish. Pull ALL Federal assets and let them fend for themselves. They’ll last about 2 months against Mexico, regardless of The Alamo. Let’s see um swing that pair they claim to have. It’ll be effen hilarious.

  36. #36 |  Charlie O | 

    The State of Texas (I’m a former resident of that shithole) will do whatever it can, by any means necessary, to thwart any proof that it has EVER executed an innocent man. Texans are proud of the fact that they execute more people than any other state or country. Texans are proud of the fact they have an “express lane” to the death chamber. If it’s ever proven that an innocent man was executed in Texas, all those born-agains and Baptists will actually have to a little soul searching and determine that all committed collective murder.

  37. #37 |  Dan | 

    Guess one has to be a victim to understand…its a whole different ball game when a loved one is tortured and killed and the perpetrator is found to have done it before and you know will do it again. I’d throw the switch or pull the lever…

  38. #38 |  André | 

    Charlie: look at the total number of executions performed annually by the PRC. Compare that to the United States.

  39. #39 |  Evidence vs. Ignorance | Rogue Medic | 

    […] Texas Officials Continue Coverup of One Possible Wrongful Execution; Fight To Proceed With Another […]

  40. #40 |  Anthony | 

    Texas is a joke. that place is full of self rightous hipcrites. the governor supports the death penalty for political reasons, not for the fact that someone is guilty. Additionally, I could not find myself living in a state that the authorities fail to admit when they have made a mistake and murdered an innocent man. If it is true that the state put to death someone who did not murder any one the police and prosecuter as well as Governor rick perry should suffer the save fate.

  41. #41 |  Gino Madaio | 

    WHAT IS WORSE THAN SOMEONE KILLING ANOTHER HUMAN.??

    THE GOVERNMENT KILLING AN INNOCENT PERSON UNDER THE GUISE OF JUSTICE ??? HOW INCREDIBLY HYPOCRITICAL..

    ITS TIME TO TAKE BACK.. OUR COUNTRY..

  42. #42 |  Rick Perry and the Assumption of Guilt « Rough Ol' Boy | 

    […] absolutely incurious about the possibility that Texas might have convicted innocent people. He actively fought an inquiry that could have revealed Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by the state of Texas in […]

  43. #43 |  The American Conservative » Rick Perry and the Assumption of Guilt | 

    […] absolutely incurious about the possibility that Texas might have convicted innocent people. He actively fought an inquiry that could have revealed Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by the state of Texas in […]

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