So last night I should have been in bed around 9:30, but after doing some school work, I decided to linger at the TV a bit. Between 9:30 and 10, I actually flipped over to Hannity & Colmes a few times, which is a sure sign that it’s time to go to bed.
I caught the top of Anderson Cooper 360 to hear some of the Imus scuttlebutt, but then they teased a story about Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed in February, 2004 for a house fire in 1991 that killed his three daughters. In December of that year, the Chicago Tribune published an investigation that concluded that the fire was an accident, not arson.
Last night CNN did a story about the case and about the changing science of fire investigation. I sat up straight when they reached this point in the story:
BARRY SCHECK, CO-DIRECTOR, THE INNOCENCE PROJECT: There are hundreds of people at least whose cases have to be re-examined.
KAYE (voice-over): Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project says Dan Dougherty on Death Row in Pennsylvania could be one of them.
LENTINI: Fires are accidental until proven otherwise. None of the evidence in the case indicates an arson fire.
KAYE (on camera): So he shouldn’t be on Death Row?
LENTINI: No, he shouldn’t be on Death Row. He shouldn’t even be in prison. He shouldn’t have been tried.
KAYE (voice-over): Dougherty was sentenced to death in 2000 for a fire more than a decade earlier that killed two of his young sons. Neighbors say he tried to put the fire out.
But years later an ex-wife who was in a custody dispute with Dougherty at the time, told police he confessed to her he’d set it. The jury bought it, and the arson evidence.
Like the Willingham case, Lentini says investigators in the Dougherty case mistook burn patterns on the floor and apparent points of origin as evidence of arson. He says they didn’t understand science and the phenomenon of flashover. When the fire gets so hot, the entire room catches fire, even the floor.
This is at least the second time in less than three years that the media has focused on cases of men on PA’s death row who may be innocent. In the summer of 2004, the Philadelphia City Paper published a two-part series on the case of Walter Ogrod of Philadelphia. (Here’s part 1, and here’s part 2.)
What is clear from both the Dougherty case and the Ogrod case is this: Pennsylvania needs a temporary moratorium on executions while a commission can study how the death penalty functions in the Commonwealth.
Andy in Harrisburg