Execution opponents hope Texas case will be US turning point
He was executed in Texas in 2004, convicted of setting a fire that killed
his 3 children, but Todd Willingham could become the first proven case of
an innocent man put to death by the state.
Convicted at 24 of starting a fire that killed his three daughters,
Willingham's case is now being reexamined, and opponents of capital
punishment hope it could prove a turning point in the United States, where
an average of 50 people a year are executed by lethal injection.
Proving a convict's innocence is difficult, and doing so after a prisoner
has been executed is extremely rare. Death penalty experts told AFP that
no US state has ever officially acknowledged making the "ultimate
"As long as our system of justice makes mistakes — including the ultimate
mistake — we cannot continue executing people," argues the Innocence
Project, which in 2006 took Willingham's case to the Texas forensic
If that commission establishes that Willingham was indeed innocent, as he
continued to insist until his execution, "it will pose the greatest moral
challenge to this nation about the death penalty: are we or are we not
prepared to keep this system now, knowing that some innocent people will
be convicted and tragically executed?" said Rick Halperin of the Texas
Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"How many mistakes is this nation willing to endure?"
In 1992, Willingham was convicted by a jury based on evidence from local
experts. He was executed 12 years later.
His case, detailed this week in the New Yorker magazine, included classic
court missteps: the defense presented no opposing expert witness; a
psychiatric expert described Willingham as a "dangerous psychopath,"
despite never having met him; witnesses changed their statements to favor
the prosecution; and court-appointed lawyers acted in a manner other
attorneys said was incompetent.
In a report sent in August to the Texas forensic science commission,
reviewed by AFP, an expert fire investigator concluded, as did 2 other
experts in 2004 and 2006, that the blaze was accidental, not arson.
The report found that the local fire scene expert consulted in the case
offered an opinion that "is nothing more than a collection of personal
beliefs that have nothing to do with the science-based fire
The case takes on chilling resonance as Troy Davis, a black man convicted
of killing a white police officer, awaits execution in Georgia, continuing
to proclaim his innocence.
He has escaped 3 dates with death and recently obtained a Supreme Court
order forcing a court to examine new evidence he argues could prove his
A survey of 800 adults in California this week found that support for
capital punishment had fallen to 66 %, down from 79 % in 1989. 44 % of
those surveyed said they were concerned about the possibility an innocent
person could be executed — up from 23 % in 1989.
But Willingham's case will hardly make death penalty opponents' work easy.
In a recent ruling, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a
dissenting opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas: "This court has
never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted
defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince
a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent."
(source: Agence France-Presse)