Innocent, but Executed
In his final hours on death row, Cameron Todd Willingham and his attorneys
tried frantically to show the governor of Texas a new scientific report
proving his innocence. The evidence was apparently ignored, and Willingham
was executed on February 17, 2004.
During his trial, he refused prosecutors' offer to give him life in prison
instead of the death penalty. He told them he was innocent, and he
wouldn't agree to any deals. As he was strapped down in the execution
chamber, just before the lethal injection began, he proclaimed his
innocence one last time.
An extraordinary new investigative report in the New Yorker shows that
Willingham was telling the truth. He was innocent. David Grann's report,
in the September 7 issue, exhaustively deconstructs every aspect of the
case and shows that none of the evidence used to convict Willingham was
valid. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1974, Grann's
report constitutes the strongest case on record in this country that an
innocent man was executed.
Willingham was convicted of murdering his two young children by arson. He
spent 12 years on death row in Texas before he was executed. Forensic
science that supposedly proved the fire was intentionally set was central
to Willingham's conviction was, in fact, completely invalid — which the
experts who testified should have known in 1992. A state forensic science
commission in Texas is officially looking into the case and selected a
widely respected expert to analyze whether the forensic testimony was
valid. Last week the expert filed a report confirming what 5 other leading
arson experts have found — what passed for arson analysis in the
Willingham case had no scientific basis, and the scientific facts in
Willingham's case were the same as the case of Ernest Willis. In an
entirely separate case, Willis was sent to death row in Texas for an arson
murder of family members but, luckily, in his the state recognized the
arson analysis was wrong. Willis was fully exonerated just months after
Willingham was executed.
The state forensic commission in Texas is still finishing its work on
Willingham's case, but David Grann's New Yorker article examines the
entire case, including the jailhouse informant who plainly gave false
testimony and the circumstantial evidence, flimsy in the first place, that
was not what it appeared to be to the jury. After reading Grann's report,
fair-minded people will know beyond a reasonable doubt that an innocent
person was executed.
So what now? Whether our criminal justice system has executed an innocent
man should no longer be an open question. We don't know how often it
happens, but we know it has happened. Cameron Todd Willingham's case
The focus turns to how we can stop it from happening again. As long as our
system of justice makes mistakes — including the ultimate mistake — we
cannot continue executing people.
At the same time, the problems in the Willingham case are not limited to
people facing the death penalty. The Innocence Project has found that
forensic science problems were a factor in 50 % of all wrongful
convictions that were later overturned with DNA testing. A recent report
by the National Academy of Sciences found that many forensic disciplines
are not rooted in solid science. The report called on Congress to create a
National Institute of Forensic Science to set nationwide standards and
ensure that evidence used in criminal cases is sufficiently scientific.
This can be done cost-effectively and without creating a large
It's not just possible to improve forensic science in this country — it's
imperative. If Cameron Todd Willingham's case teaches us nothing else, it
should make improving the reliability of our criminal justice system a top
priority nationwide. It's not enough to feel bad that an innocent man was
executed; we must use this moment to do better.
(source: Barry Scheck is Co-Director of the Innocence Project; Huffington
Arson probe may be catalyst for reform—-Congress could be asked to
create a body to set standards for crime lab
2 days before Christmas in 1991, the Corsicana home of Cameron Willingham,
a down-on-his-luck ex-convict and sometime auto mechanic, mysteriously
burst into flames, incinerating the front portion of the residence and
killing his 3 young children.
State and local fire investigators branded the conflagration an arson, and
that ruling, coupled with Willingham's peculiar behavior at the scene
some said he was more concerned about saving his car than his children
led to a capital murder conviction and death sentence.
In the 13 years between his arrest and execution, the Oklahoma-born
Willingham strenuously maintained his innocence.
Questions of investigators' competence in the tragic case and of
Willingham's possible innocence vaulted to center stage last week when
nationally renowned fire expert Craig Beyler blasted the accuracy of the
early probes in a study commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science
Beyler's review joins 2 earlier expert reports in faulting the work of
Texas Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, whose testimony was key to
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, hailed Beyler's
findings as corroboration of a 2006 study sponsored by his group.
"There is a powerful case for those who have the stomach to look at it
that an innocent man in Texas went to his death," Scheck said. "This was
not arson, much less an arson murder case."
Scheck said he hopes publicity about the Harvard-trained Beyler's report
will boost congressional interest in a National Research Council call for
a body to set standards for U.S. forensics laboratories and professionals
and oversee education. The research council found serious deficiencies in
the current system but stopped short of calling for old criminal cases to
The Texas commission mandated by the Legislature to improve the practice
of forensic sciences in the state after the Houston police crime lab
scandal could issue a final report in the Willingham case next spring,
said chairman Sam Bassett.
The panel could find professional negligence or misconduct in the case,
Bassett said, but will not deliver an opinion regarding Willingham's guilt
That question still stirs passions among those closely associated with the
case. Most surprising is the view of Willingham's first attorney, Waco
lawyer David Martin.
"He's a classic textbook psychopath," Martin said of his former client.
"He's among the 6 % of the population who don't have a conscience."
Martin, a former policeman, dismissed Beyler's report. "Vasquez was one of
the most competent and forthright witnesses I've seen," he said. "He was
an honest man. He did a good job."
Martin said he examined the burned-out residence and found what he
considered clear-cut evidence of arson. "It was quite obvious he poured
accelerant on the floor and set the house on fire," he said.
Beyler's report was critical of Vasquez, who died in 1994, and Corsicana
assistant Fire Chief Doug Fogg for interpreting such things apparent pour
marks, cracked windows, unusual burn patterns as indications of arson.
The earlier studies' authors also found that investigators misread the
signs, which, they argued, could have developed from an accidental fire.
Vasquez, Beyler complained, projected the aura of infallibility on the
witness stand, telling jurors that Willingham had deliberately set the
fire to kill his children, Amber, 2, and the twins Karmon and Kameron, 1.
Beat pregnant wife
Willingham was no saint. Oklahoma records reveal burglary and grand
His stepmother, Eugenia Willingham of Ardmore, Okla., acknowledged
Willingham and his wife, Stacy, had "a stormy relationship."
Authorities said Willingham once beat his pregnant wife to try to cause
her to miscarry. He boasted of brutally killing a dog. He confessed to a
cellmate that he had deliberately burned his house.
But, his stepmother said, Willingham was a "loving father." That affection
was especially apparent in his relationship with Amber.
"He almost worshipped her," she said. "He was not mean to those kids. He
was no psychopath."
The campaign to save Willingham began in earnest when his cousin, retired
nurse Patricia Cox, asked fire expert Gerald Hurst to review the case.
Hurst, a chemist involved in numerous fire investigations, accepted at no
cost. He found Vasquez's report filled with errors.
In February 2004, Willingham's last lawyer, Walter Reaves Jr. of Waco,
filed a last-minute petition with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and
a personal plea for a 30-day reprieve with Gov. Rick Perry. Attached were
Both were rejected.
"It shook my faith in individuals," Reaves said. "Governor Perry at the
top, just everybody involved, were far more concerned with carrying out
the sentence than considering the possibility that the person was actually
Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said: "The governor made his decision
based on the facts of the case."
Shortly before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2004, Willingham, 36, was
strapped to a gurney in the state's Huntsville death house and the needle
that would inject deadly drugs was buried in a vein. "I am an innocent man
convicted of a crime I did not do," Willingham blustered in a
profanity-laced statement. "From God's dust I came and to dust I will
7 minutes later he was dead.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
New Report Shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, Executed in Texas in 2004,
Was Innocent—-'There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person
has been executed. The question now turns to how we can stop it from
happening again, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck says
An exhaustive new investigative report shows that Cameron Todd Willingham,
who was executed in Texas in 2004, was innocent. The report comes 3 years
after the Innocence Project released analysis from some of the nations
leading forensic experts who found that the central evidence against
Willingham was not valid. The Innocence Project also obtained public
records showing that Texas officials ignored this evidence in the days
leading up to Willingham's execution.
Willingham was convicted of arson murder in 1992 and was executed in
February 2004. His 3 young children died at a fire in the familys
Corsicana, Texas, home. At Willingham's trial, forensic experts testified
that evidence showed the fire was intentionally set. A jailhouse informant
also testified against Willingham, and other circumstantial evidence was
used against him.
A 16,000-word report in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker
deconstructs every facet of the case, finding that none of the evidence
against Willingham was valid. Prior to the New Yorker's investigative
report, by David Grann, the forensic science had been debunked as
completely erroneous (including in a 2004 investigative report in the
Chicago Tribune), but the other evidence was never examined closely.
"The New Yorker's investigation lays out this case in its totality and
leads to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham was innocent. There
can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed,"
said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. "The question now turns
to how we can stop it from happening again."
"As long as our system of justice makes mistakes including the ultimate
mistake we cannot continue executing people," Scheck said. "This case
also highlights serious problems with forensic science in this country.
The vast majority of forensic scientists are honest, capable, hard-working
professionals, but we aren't giving them the tools they need to do the
job. Congress needs to create a National Institute of Forensic Science
that can spark research to determine the accuracy of forensic disciplines
and set standards for how our system of justice uses science."
In May 2006, the Innocence Project (which is affiliated with Cardozo
School of Law) formally submitted the Willingham case to the Texas
Forensic Science Commission, along with information about another arson
case and a request that the panel order a review of arson convictions
across the state. In the other arson case, Ernest Willis was convicted of
an unrelated arson murder and sentenced to death in 1987, and he served 17
years in prison before he was exonerated. The May 2006 filing included a
48-page report from an independent 5-member panel of some of the nation's
leading arson investigators, who reviewed more than 1,000 pages of
evidence, testimony and official documents in the 2 cases.
In the report, the arson experts with a combined 138 years of experience
in the field say that neither of the fires which Willingham and Willis
were convicted of setting were arson. The expert report notes that the
evidence and forensic analysis in the Willingham and Willis cases "were
the same," and that "each and every one" of the forensic interpretations
that state experts made in both men's trials have been proven
In 2007, the Texas Forensic Science Commission announced that it had
accepted the Innocence Project's complaint and would launch an
investigation. The commission contracted with Craig Beyler, a widely
respected arson expert, to conduct an independent review of the evidence.
Last week, Beyler filed his report with the commission, finding that the
forensic analysis in Willingham's case was wrong. The commission announced
that it is reviewing Beyler's report and will review other evidence before
issuing its conclusion next year.
"The Forensic Science Commission is still looking at this case and the
broader issue of arson convictions statewide. Members of the commission
are clearly taking this very seriously, carefully and thoughtfully, and
they should have the space to do their work," Scheck said. "The Forensic
Science Commission is not going to determine whether an innocent man was
executed. The New Yorker has already done that. The commission will
determine what went wrong with the forensic analysis, how widespread the
problem is and how we can be sure similar analysis is more reliable in the
Read the full article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker.
(source: Innocence Project)
The troubling case of Cameron Todd Willingham
A blistering report issued last week should be required reading for anyone
who discounts the possibility that the state's death chamber has taken an
At issue are the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 on
conviction of an arson-murder in Corsicana, and Ernest Willis, released
from death row the same year after he was cleared in his own arson-murder
case, out of Iraan, in West Texas.
Key analysis in the Willingham case
The report included the following comments about Manuel Vasquez of the
State Fire Marshal's Office:
"His investigation did not satisfy the contemporaneous standard of care.
His hypothesis was directly contradicted by eyewitness testimony, and he
admitted that he had not eliminated other possible causes."
"His statistics of the fraction of fires which are in fact arson are
remarkable and far exceed any rational estimate. In reflects his
predisposition to find arson in his cases."
"His views seem to be that arson fires are systematically more severe than
natural fires. There is no basis for this notion in modern fire science."
The new report, prepared by a fire-science expert hired by the Texas
Forensic Science Commission, found that arson investigators helped
assemble cases against both men with a shaky understanding of scientific
fact, no clear methodology and a disregard of established protocols.
Some conclusions, the report said, were reached without supporting
evidence; others relied on assumptions about fire that modern science has
The forensics commission has yet to hear from the arson investigators or
issue its own conclusions, but the Willingham case has been excoriated by
nine other top fire forensics experts.
Did he do it? Did Willingham set a fire in his house to kill his
2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins? The criminal justice system may
never provide a clear answer about whether the case represents a fatal
error in the nation's busiest death chamber.
However, if the Forensic Science Commission adopts the report's bottom
line "a finding of arson could not be sustained" that would be a
terrible indictment of the system. And it would strongly suggest the
possibility that a modern, competent forensics investigation would have
ruled out arson in the Willingham case. It's hard to imagine a murder
conviction without a finding of arson.
The Willis case involved a house fire that claimed the lives of two young
women. Willis escaped the executioner after a federal court ordered a new
trial, unrelated to the slipshod arson work. The new district attorney in
Pecos County then did his own inquiry and was convinced by fresh forensic
analysis that the fatal fire was accidental, not set. Charges dropped,
Willis walked free after 17 years.
By that time, Willingham had been dead eight months. Challenges to the
forensic work against him had fallen short.
We may never know if the facts as experts understand them now would have
secured him a new trial. But it is a positive sign that the relatively new
Forensic Science Commission has taken up the Willingham and Willis cases
as one of its very first inquiries.
What level of forensic ineptitude and guesswork is tolerable when it comes
to sending a person to death row?
The answer is none. That is obvious, but we ask anyway and repeat it as
necessary because bringing an ill-founded death penalty case can have as
heinous an outcome as willful capital murder itself.
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)
NOTE: The following story about Cameron Willingham is available at:
Questions About an Execution
People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death
penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence,
but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.
Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old
daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of
Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was
arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is
further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to
justify imposing a death penalty.
After the fire, investigators decided, based in large part on burn
patterns on the house's floors, that it was intentionally set. Prosecutors
charged Mr. Willingham, who escaped from the burning home, with capital
murder. Mr. Willingham protested his innocence until the day the state
killed him by lethal injection in 2004.
The following year, Texas created the Forensic Science Commission to
investigate charges of scientific mistakes or misconduct, and the panel
began looking into the Willingham case. It commissioned Craig Beyler, a
nationally recognized fire expert, to examine evidence.
Mr. Beyler issued a report last week that painted an ugly picture of what
passes for expert scientific investigation and testimony in a capital case
in Texas. The report found that the official inquiry into the Willingham
fire did not meet prevailing scientific standards of the time, much less
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 report concluded that a "finding of arson could not be sustained." The
Forensic Science Commission is now asking the state fire marshal's office
for its response. It anticipates issuing a final report next year.
The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is
outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled
investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.
(source: Editorial, New York Times)
Scrutiny of 2004 execution growing
The state's system of handing down the death penalty is coming under
renewed scrutiny due to new questions about a 2004 investigation.
The Statesman's Chuck Lindell and others reported last week that a
state-funded investigation had concluded that a fatal house fire that led
Texas to execute Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 was erroneously ruled to
be arson by fire investigators who relied on bad science, unproven
theories and personal bias.
The report listed more than a dozen instances of improper analysis and
mistaken conclusions provided by 2 fire officials during Willingham's
capital murder trial.
Lindell wrote, "The analysis, prepared by nationally known fire scientist
Craig Beyler, raises the possibility that Willingham did not commit the
crime for which he was executed, a 1991 fire that killed his 3 young
children in the Corsicana house they shared. Only Willingham escaped the
burning house, and he insisted on his innocence until the moment of his
The Willingham case is also the subject of a lengthy story in the issue of
the New Yorker that hits newsstands today. The magazine recounts
Willingham's life, the 1991 fire and the ensuing investigation, trial and
appeals process in exhaustive detail. Author David Grann concludes, "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.'''
At this point, it's hard to see this case having a huge impact in the
March Republican primary for governor, but it could lead to a broad
discussion about the justice system in Texas in a general election.
Without going into the specifics of the Willingham case, Clay Robison, a
spokesman for Democratic candidate Tom Schieffer said Sunday that
Schieffer generally supports the death penalty.
(source: Marshall News Messenger)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New Investigation Confirms Execution of an Innocent Man—-Broad Body of
Evidence Points to Wrongful Execution of Texan Cameron Todd Willingham
A new investigative report that will appear in the September 7 issue of
the New Yorker corroborates that Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured) – who
was executed by the State of Texas on February 17, 2004 – was innocent.
Willingham had been convicted of arson in 1991 that killed his young
daughters. Every fire expert who has examined this case since the time of
conviction has concluded that there was no evidence to support the finding
According to the Innocence Project, this new report "exhaustively
deconstructs every aspect of the case and shows that none of the evidence
used to convict Willingham was valid." It goes beyond the forensic science
that has been the focus of investigations for the last five years and
debunks every other piece of evidence, including the snitch testimony,
witness testimony, and circumstantial evidence.
The New Yorker piece comes on the heels of a report filed last week with
the Texas Forensic Science Commission by fire scientist Craig L. Beyler,
who found that the investigators in this case had a "poor understanding of
fire science" and that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." The
Commission now will examine Beyler's report and issue its own findings
with regard to the allegations of forensic misconduct in this case.
"Simply put, there appears to be no doubt that Cameron Todd Willingham
would not have been convicted if he was put on trial today, much less
sentenced to death and executed," said Kristin Houle, Executive Director
of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "This investigation
comes at a critical moment in our state's dialogue about the death penalty
and contributes to growing concerns about the reliability and fairness of
a system that takes human life. Increasingly diverse voices, including
those of law enforcement, religious leaders, murder victim family members,
and state legislators all have called for an end to this arbitrary and
error-prone form of punishment."
The death penalty landscape in Texas – and in the United States as a whole
– has changed dramatically in the short five and a half years since
Willingham's execution in 2004. Since that time, 21 individuals –
including 2 Texans – have been released from death rows nationwide due to
evidence of their wrongful conviction (135 people have been released from
death rows nationwide since 1973).
This includes Ernest Ray Willis, who was exonerated from death row in
Texas on October 6, 2004 and whose case also was addressed by the Beyler
report. Willis had been sentenced to death for the 1986 deaths of 2 women
who died in a house fire that was ruled arson. 17 years later, Pecos
County District Attorney Ori T. White revisited the case after a federal
judge overturned Willis' conviction. White hired an arson specialist to
review the original evidence, and the specialist concluded that there was
no evidence of arson. In 2004, prosecutors dropped all charges against
"This case lends new urgency to the need for an honest assessment of the
intolerable risks associated with the death penalty," said Sam Millsap,
former District Attorney of Bexar County. "I urge all public officials in
Texas to scrutinize the case of Cameron Todd Willingham and to recognize
that the only responsible way to address the ultimate fallibility of the
capital punishment system is to abolish the death penalty altogether. "
(source: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty)
Houston woman's killer dies on death row
A convicted killer on Texas' death row for nearly three decades has died
in prison, prison officials said.
Danny Dean Thomas was found dead Saturday, a day before his 54th birthday,
on death row at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Polunsky Unit
near Livingston. Prison officials said an autopsy would be performed but
initially were attributing his death to natural causes.
Thomas changed his name to Shozdijiji Shisinday since his conviction for
the July 1981 abduction and murder of a Houston woman. Sylvia Elaine
Harrison, 19, was fatally shot and her body was dumped in the San Jacinto
River in Harris County.
Thomas' 1982 conviction for her slaying was overturned on appeal and he
was retried and sentenced to death again in 1998. Last October, the U.S.
Supreme Court refused to review his case.
He did not have an execution date. He was 26 when he first arrived on
death row and spent more than 27 years there.
Thomas had won a 2nd trial because the Texas attorney general's office
missed a deadline to appeal a federal judge's decision to overturn his
According to evidence at his trials, Thomas explained bloody clothing he
was wearing by saying he'd hit a dog and that he and a friend had put the
bloody animal in their car before dumping it in the river. He told others
he had shot the dog because it would not stop whimpering.
Thomas, however, later acknowledged that he and a friend, Zendal Peels,
stopped to help Harrison, who was having car trouble. She thanked them for
repairing her car and invited them to her home where court documents
indicated they had drank beer and smoked marijuana.
In his statement to police, Thomas said Peels unexpectedly struck Harrison
in the head, knocking her out. Then the 2 took some items from her home,
carried the unconscious woman to their car and drove around. When she
regained consciousness, according to his statement, Thomas shot her in the
head at close range. They drove to the river, removed her clothing and
tossed her in the river after tying concrete blocks to her feet.
Peels' family was upset to find blood in the car. Thomas was arrested
after seeking psychiatric treatment at a hospital where he claimed people
were blaming him for killing a person when he had killed a dog.
A case against Peels, who was 17 at the time of the attack, was dismissed
for lack of evidence.
At his 2nd trial, where jurors were deciding between life in prison or a
death sentence, a life term would have made Thomas immediately eligible
for parole because of time served for his 1st conviction.
Defense attorneys had described him as mentally unstable, tired, hungry
and scared when he spoke with police and signed a confession about 23
hours after he was taken into custody.
The Harris County jury considering his case at the 2nd trial decided he
Testimony showed Harrison repeated "God help me" until Thomas shot her in
(source: Associated Press)
Killer dies after nearly 3 decades on death row
A convicted killer on Texas' death row for nearly 3 decades has died in
prison, prison officials said.
Danny Dean Thomas, convicted in 1982 of killing a Houston woman, was found
dead Saturday, a day before his 54th birthday, on death row at the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice's Polunsky Unit near Livingston. Prison
officials said an autopsy would be performed but initially attributed his
death to natural causes.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Why is the UK involved in a Texas death case?
The following is a guest blog post by Hugh Southey, an English Barrister
who has worked on Texan death penalty cases. He can be reached by email.
The United Kingdom recently took the relatively unusual step of filing an
Amicus brief in the 5th circuit in the case of Linda Carty, a United
Kingdom national presently detained on death row in Texas. Ms Carty has
also received support from a United Kingdom charity, Reprieve. Those
interventions follow similar interventions by other foreign governments in
cases concerning their nationals.
Why do foreign governments and charities feel able to intervene in Texas
death penalty cases? It is not for me to speak for governments. However, I
would suggest that there is an important and principled reason why foreign
governments have a legitimate role to play.
International travel is now a core aspect of modern life. Every day
thousands of foreign nationals enter Texas lawfully to engage in business
or enjoy a holiday. Similar numbers of Texans travel overseas. That travel
benefits us all. The Texan economy (as well as all other economies) would
suffer without travel.
Travel is inevitably undermined if states fail to adopt minimum standards
for the treatment of people within their jurisdiction. To give an obvious
example, very few people wish to travel to Somalia because the absence of
the rule of law leaves all people at risk of ill-treatment. Less obviously
many United Kingdom nationals now have concerns about travel to Thailand
following reports of arrests at Bangkok airport as a way of extorting
The concerns about minimum standards have caused states (including the
United States) to sign up to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Among other things, this enables states to visit their nationals who are
detained overseas and make representations on their behalf. There are
recent examples of cases where I have little doubt that the American
authorities will have sought to intervene on behalf of their nationals.
For example, the American authorities will have wished to intervene on
behalf of John Yettaw, the American imprisoned for seeking to swim to Aung
San Suu Kyi. However, it is not only high profile cases that matter. The
cases of American nationals arrested for more routine matters are as
important. They are entitled to fair trials and proper treatment.
The Vienna Convention is not the only example of an international
agreement intended to ensure minimum standards. In some respects
agreements such as the United Nations Torture Convention and the American
Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man are more important. That is
because they commit states to adopt minimum standards in the treatment of
detainees. For example, it is now very clear that the use of torture is
prohibited as a matter of international law.
The legal system described above is undoubtedly important from an American
and a Texan point of view. It allows travellers to go overseas knowing
that the American government can and will intervene if they are subjected
to ill-treatment. However, that legal system cannot operate as a one way
street. It means that American must expect foreign governments to
intervene on beheld of their nationals. If foreign governments are unable
to intervene, American nationals can expect to be denied protection when
The reason why the death penalty is the particular focus of the
interventions is that there are real issues about the compatibility of the
death penalty with international law. International law may have reached
the stage where the use of the death penalty is as unacceptable as
torture. In addition, even if the death penalty is compatible the
restrictions upon its use that are imposed as a matter of international
law mean that in practice its use may well violate international law.
Violations of international law have been found in American death penalty
cases by both the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights. That means that foreign governments are likely
to have grounds for intervention in death penalty cases. They are likely
to be able to argue that accepted standards have not been met.
In light of the system of international law described above, it appears to
me that Texas must respect and accept interventions by foreign
governments. If it does not Texans will be denied support when they
travel. That will ultimately undermine travel.
(source: Dallas Morning News, death penalty blog)
Texas judge delays trial of convicted Mo. killer
A judge on Monday delayed the trial of a Missouri man charged with
murdering a pregnant woman, her husband and son at a Texas Panhandle
farmhouse in 2005, pending the arrival of DNA test results.
Attorneys for Levi King, 26, had asked that the trial be delayed, saying
they couldn't proceed without the test results. It's unclear what the DNA
Prosecutor Lynn Switzer and one of King's defense attorneys, Joe Mar
Wilson, declined to comment on the ruling, citing a gag order put in place
by State District Judge Steven Emmert.
Emmert said after the hearing that he, too, could not elaborate on the
details of the case. He did not set a date to begin the trial.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for King in the deaths of
35-year-old Michell Conrad, her 31-year-old husband Brian Conrad and her
son on Sept. 30, 2005. If convicted and sentenced to death, the Texas
punishment would take precedence under an agreement with Missouri.
King pleaded guilty last year in the shooting deaths of Orlie McCool, 70,
and his 47-year-old daughter-in-law, Dawn McCool. Their bodies were found
by a relative in a rural Pineville, Mo., home on Sept. 30, 2005 the same
day authorities in the Texas Panhandle discovered the bodies in the
Missouri authorities said King drove Orlie McCool's pickup truck from
Missouri to the Conrads' home in Texas.
King was caught the same night trying to re-enter the United States at the
Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.
Shortly after investigators brought the truck back to Missouri from El
Paso, a name tag with Brian Conrad's name was found in the vehicle.
Investigators said ballistics tests linked 1 of 4 guns found in the truck
to the Texas killings.
Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office in Missouri,
said last week that if King is acquitted in Texas he will be returned to
Missouri to serve his 2 consecutive life sentences, both without parole.
(source: Associated Press)