Antonin Scalia, no friend of justice, once said that if an innocent person had been executed in the United States, death penalty abolitionists would shout it from the rooftops. We’ve tried, and we’ve had some success. Innocence, above all other issues, has led Americans to increasingly doubt capital punishment since the Illinois moratorium in 2000. But we still have plenty of work to do.
I’ve long felt that the more zealous prosecutors and legislators get about pursuing death sentences, the more the public is turned off by the idea of the death penalty. The most zealous state, Texas, is on the verge of admitting that it executed an innocent man.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for a house fire in 1991 that killed his three children. Now The Chicago Tribune has learned that a nationally known fire expert has reported to the Texas Forensic Science Commission that not only is there no evidence that Willingham set the fire but there’s also no evidence that the fire was even arson.
Among Beyler’s key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams’ house in the small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene, and wrongly concluded Willingham’s injuries could not have been caused as he said they were.
We have at least one similar case here in PA- the case of Dan Dougherty, which has been featured on CNN and ABC News. Dougherty sits on PA’s death row today for a house blaze that fire experts believe was probably not even arson.
I first heard about Dougherty’s case two years ago. This afternoon, after hearing the Willingham news, I contacted a lawyer friend from the office that is handling Dougherty’s appeal. While sparing you the gritty details, Dougherty is years away from any relief as he and his lawyers weave their way through the appeals maze.
People can reasonably disagree over the idea of the death penalty. But there can be no doubt that executing an innocent person is our government’s worst nightmare. It’s past time to end the debacle of the death penalty.
Andy in Harrisburg