The state of Texas executed 22 death row inmates in 2004, so the case of Cameron Todd Willingham hardly seemed special at the time. Willingham had been convicted of setting his own house ablaze and killing his three children inside. According to the jury, the prosecution used a forensic fire expert to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Willingham used lighter fluid to set the fire in his infant daughters’ room.
No motive could be found. The prosecution postulated that Willingham simply went berserk — the culmination of years of unstable behavior. During his 12 years on death row all the way to his execution, Willingham maintained his innocence. However, he could have avoided the death penalty with a guilty plea.
Still, none of this was notable. Many executed inmates profess innocence. Many murderers are simply insane with no apparent motive. This seemed just another example of our court system delivering justice where it was due.
However, this month’s New Yorker magazine revealed that the Willingham case wasn’t as airtight as it seemed. The article’s author David Grann, revealed how a third-party arson investigator completely debunked the prosecution expert’s findings. There was no proof that Willingham started the fire. In fact, the investigator determined the fire was not arson at all but rather an accident most likely caused by faulty space heaters in the children’s room.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles received the report that seemed to exonerate Willingham. In spite of this, the board voted to deny his petition for clemency, and he was executed.
This is the worst failure possible in our legal system.
It’s possible that Cameron Willingham was guilty. It’s possible that a different investigator would have affirmed the prosecution’s conclusions. It’s possible that Willingham was just a psychopath, killing for no reason other than that he could.
It’s possible. But it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because as long as there is any sliver of a doubt, the death penalty must not be an option in this country.
There is moral justification in capital punishment. The worst criminals should receive the worst punishment. Killers should be killed. The death penalty is certainly worse than life in prison. If it wasn’t, criminals wouldn’t trade a guilty plea to avoid a lethal injection.
The death penalty isn’t cruel and unusual punishment either. For those who have killed, it is a just punishment. If there were a way to eliminate all doubt, capital punishment would be just.
In our legal system, there is always an element of doubt, even if it is beyond a reasonable one. “Reasonable doubt” changes with the times and technology. What was once an accepted practice in science could later be proven false with new developments.
These mistakes can be corrected in cases where inmates are still in prison. The advent of
But you can’t fix a mistaken execution.There is a tendency to be ambivalent about this because it’s the kind of thing that seems to happen elsewhere. But you have to make the issue a personal one. What if you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Would you care then? Imagine if it happened to a family member — someone who is a good person but has achieved a bad reputation. Would you be ambivalent then?
Executing one innocent man far outweighs the benefit of executing a thousand guilty ones. Any country that guarantees its citizens the “equal protection of the law” cannot allow even the most remote possibility that this could happen.
The death penalty must be abolished.
Tim Hadachek is a senior in political science. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.