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TCADP May 2019 Alert: New film reopens question – did Texas execute an innocent man?

In this edition of our monthly alert, you’ll find details on a new film about the true Texas story of Cameron Todd Willingham, as well as coverage of two recent reports, the debut novel of attorney David R. Dow, and the stay of execution for Dexter Johnson.

In this edition:

Scheduled executions: Federal judge stays May 2 execution of Dexter Johnson 

New resources: A debut novel by attorney David R. Dow and the soon-to-be-released film “Trial by Fire” tell the stories of a deeply-flawed justice system

In case you missed it: TDCJ removes chaplains from the execution chamber and ends written last statements; new reports on wrongful convictions and international death penalty developments

Featured event: Save the date for this special film screening in Houston

Quote of the month
“I don’t believe any single film can alter consciousness. At best it becomes one of many voices in a rising chorus that hopefully leads to change. But when I think of this movie being watched by each person alone in the dark, when I think of Todd and his years in the dark, I’d like to believe it might change how we think about the preciousness of life.”

– Edward Zwick, director of “Trial by Fire,” about the true Texas story of Cameron Todd Willingham, in a letter published by Landmark Theatres

Scheduled execution
Yesterday, April 30, 2019, a federal judge stayed the execution of Dexter Johnson after determining his newly-appointed lawyer needed more time to review the case and investigate any undeveloped claims. Johnson was scheduled to be put to death by the State of Texas on May 2 for the murders of Maria Aparece and Huy Ngo in Harris County in 2006. He was 18 at the time of the crime and has asked the courts to consider his claim of intellectual disability.  

Texas is responsible for three of the four executions nationwide thus far in 2019.  Three other scheduled executions were stayed by state or federal courts.  There currently are two executions scheduled to take place – one in August and one in September. 

Attend a vigil in your community on the day of executions. Information and updates on cases are available on our website and through Facebook and Twitter.

New resources
New dramatic film, “Trial by Fire,” tells true story of Cameron Todd Willingam

“Trial by Fire,” a new feature film directed by Edward Zwick, will be released to select theaters nationwide on May 17, 2019 by Roadside Attractions.  It tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death in 1991 after being convicted of setting a fire to his Corsicana home that killed his three young daughters.  The film is based upon David Grann’s article about Willingham’s case, which appeared in the New Yorker in 2009. “Trial by Fire”stars Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell.  Watch the trailer.

We encourage all TCADP supporters to see the film at your local movie theater.  Consider taking a friend or family member who doesn’t have a position on the death penalty or is on the fence on the issue. 

Here are some ideas for actions you can take after watching the film:

 – Post your reactions to the film on social media.  Use the hashtag #TrialByFireFilm and follow@TPFfilm for updates.

– Discuss “Trial by Fire” with your friends, family & co-workers, and encourage them to see it.

– Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper with your thoughts about the film.  Contact us at or for tips.

– Contact your state legislators to let them know about the film and the issues it raises about the Texas death penalty.  Go to to find out who represents you.  Email us for best practices for communicating with legislators. 

Page-turning debut novel by attorney David R. Dow bring the flaws and failures of the Texas death penalty system into sharp focus

David R. Dow is the founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network and has represented more than 100 death row inmates during their state and federal appeals.  In his debut novel, Confessions of an Innocent Man, he presents the complex story of a man who has been wrongly imprisoned and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.  It’s an unpredictable and thought-provoking tale, sure to spark spirited conversations among readers.

The publisher, Penguin Random House, is sponsoring a book giveaway for TCADP supporters!  Enter the drawing by May 15 for your chance to win a free copy of Confessions of an Innocent Man.  Ten winners will be drawn at random, thanks to the generosity of Penguin Random House.

The book also is available from Amazon or your local bookstore.  If you order it from Amazon, consider posting a review – and use AmazonSmile to donate a portion of your purchase to TCADP! Follow David R. Dow on Twitter @drdow for book reviews and interviews and stay tuned for an announcement from TCADP about a Twitter chat with David later this month.

In case you missed it
TDCJ removes clergy from the execution chamber and ends practice of providing written last statements

On April 2, 2019, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) published a revised Execution Procedure in which it removed all chaplains from the execution chamber. This new policy now denies all people of faith the right to comfort in their last moments, comfort that has been provided to hundreds of inmates since the State resumed executions in 1982.  It came in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to stay the execution of Patrick Murphyon March 28, 2019, based on his complaint of religious discrimination.  TDCJ had denied Murphy’s request for a reasonable accommodation to have a Buddhist priest in the execution chamber.

An editorial in the Palestine Herald-Press called the new policy “unnecessary, constitutionally shaky, and mean-spirited.” (“Department of Criminal Justice should permit clergy in execution chamber,”April 14, 2019)

On April 24, 2019, State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (SD 27 – Brownsville) filed Senate Bill 2555, which amends Chapter 43 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to state that “The Texas Department of Criminal Justice shall ensure that a spiritual leader of the condemned person’s choosing is:(1)  present in the room during the execution of the person; and

(2)  in close proximity to the person.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
 On the heels of the decision to remove chaplains from the execution chamber, TDCJ reversed another long-standing practice: publishing the written last statements of executed individuals.  On April 30, TDCJ agreed to a demand by State Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, that no last statements of the executed be read after their death.  No written statements will be provided to the public; last words spoken on the gurney still will be allowed and made public.  Read more and listen to this Texas Standard interview with former TDCJ spokesperson Michelle Lyons.

New reports on wrongful convictions and international death penalty developments

On April 9, the National Registry of Exonerations issued its 2018 report on wrongful convictions and exonerations in the United States. According to the report, the 151 people who were exonerated last year collectively lost 1,639 years to prison – an average of 10.9 years per exoneree.   This includes five people who were exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted in cases that involved the death penalty.

Official misconduct occurred in at least 107 cases, with 79% of homicide exonerations marred by misconduct by police and/or prosecutors.  “Professional exonerators,” including innocence organizations and conviction integrity units, took part in more than 140 of the 151 exonerations last year.  Close to half of the exonerations (70) involved convictions in which no crime was actually committed. Sixteen exonerations involved cases in Texas. 

On April 10, Amnesty International released its Global Report on Death Sentences and Executions 2018. The report found that the number of known executions last year dropped by over 30%, reaching the lowest figure Amnesty International has reported in the past decade.  Amnesty documented at least 690 executions worldwide in 2018; the number of executions in China remains classified as a state secret.  The world’s top five executing countries last year were China (1,000s), Iran (at least 253), Saudi Arabia (149), Viet Nam (at least 85), and Iraq (at least 52).   

Many countries made significant advancements towards abolishing the death penalty, including Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Malaysia. The number of recorded death sentences also dropped slightly, from 2,591 in 2017 to 2,531 in 2018.

Featured event
Join the European Union, the Consul of Greece in Houston, and TCADP for a free screening of “Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2” on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 from 6:00 to 8:00 PM at the Wilhelmina Cullen Robertson Auditorium (A350) at the University of Houston-Downtown (One Main Street, Houston, TX 77002). This powerful documentary from filmmaker Florent Vassault features Lindy Lou Isonhood, who served on a capital jury in Mississippi 20 years ago. The jury’s decision to sentence the defendant to death had a profound impact on her. In the film, she attempts to track down other jurors to discuss their experience in the aftermath of the trial. Following the film, we will have a discussion with experts on the front lines of the criminal justice system. This event is a collaboration with POV, PBS’ award-winning nonfiction film series: