Last week the Associated Press, CNN and other news outlets reported that new evidence had been gathered by the Innocence Project which indicated that about a decade ago, the state of Texas may well have executed an innocent man.
The case involved Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed 10 years ago for allegedly starting a fire in his home that killed his three daughters.
Now evidence has surfaced which indicates that significant evidence in the case was tainted, if not outright lies, and that there was unethical and perhaps illegal collusion in the case between the case judge and prosecutor.
According to the Associated Press, the “battle to clear Mr. Willingham’s name has symbolic value because it may offer evidence that an innocent man was executed, something opponents of the death penalty believe happens more than occasionally.
In the Willingham case, his conviction rested, CNN said, on “two pillars of evidence: analysis by arson investigators and the testimony of a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb, who said that Mr. Willingham had confessed the crime to him.”
CNN said new evidence collected by the Innocence Project has discredited the arson investigation; serious questions have been raised about the quality of the scientific analysis and testimony, which, its report said, “did not measure up to the standard of science even at the time” ten years ago.
The prosecutor argued that, regardless of the science, the testimony of the jailhouse information should be enough to deny any attempt at clemency, the report noted. But in recent weeks as part of an effort to obtain a posthumous exoneration of Willingham from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, lawyers working on Willingham’s behalf say they’ve found evidence that the jailhouse informant — Webb — gave his testimony in return for a reduced prison sentence from the judge in the case.
The point here is this: Sure the case is in Texas, which leads the world in state-sanctioned executions. And sure that case is 10 years old and has no direct ties to Kentucky. But it serves as yet another example of how capital punishment systems all across the nation can go wrong. And when those systems make mistakes and kill someone, the victim has no recourse. Several governors across the nation who have imposed moratoriums on their state’s death penalty systems, have all said that the risk of killing even one innocent person outweighs the value of having such a system as part of their judicial process.
So it ought to be in Kentucky.
Two weeks ago, Washington Governor Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in his state and won praise from his state’s bishops. In Kentucky, time after time, the state’s bishops — headed by our own Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz — have asked sitting governors for clemency for men on death row and for suspension of the use of capital punishment, especially after the American Bar Association study which said the state’s system is “seriously flawed.”
Now comes Republican State Representative David Floyd of Bardstown, Ky., who has introduced a bill in the General Assembly to end capital punishment in the state. Floyd wrote an article published last weekend in The Courier-Journal about his efforts to repeal the death penalty. He noted that, when he’d made similar efforts in the past, he was usually the “only conservative legislator in a group of liberals” making the argument to end this outdated means of dealing with capital crimes.
“Over these last few years, ‘liberal’ and spiritual arguments have failed to persuade other legislators to take up these bills,” he wrote. Then he proposed a way he might “bring other conservatives with us, and at last vote to abolish our death penalty.”
He noted that “conservatives value innocent life and should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people.” And he noted, as the ABA report did, that “a government program run by human beings” can make mistakes, and he added that “with the death penalty, innocent people can and have been executed.”
“Kentucky has sentenced 78 individuals to death since 1976,” he wrote. “Fifty of those convictions have been overturned, and one inmate was released from a sentence of death because he was wrongly convicted. Conservatives should agree that it’s not worth sacrificing the innocent to kill the guilty.”
Father Patrick Delahanty, who heads the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, has noted for years that when the people of the state are asked whether they prefer the death penalty or a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for convicted killers, the vast majority chooses the latter penalty.
It makes sense. Representative Floyd makes sense. Continuing state-sanctioned executions doesn’t, whether in Texas, in Kentucky or in any other state. It’s time to end this practice once and for all.