Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Did Texas execute an innocent man?

According to a story out today, it very well may have.

Texas may have executed an innocent man in 2004 based on mistaken and scientifically invalid assumptions by fire investigators, four of the nation's leading arson experts said in a report issued Tuesday.

The expert analysis, arranged by the Innocence Project, found no evidence of arson in the Corsicana house fire that sent Cameron Willingham to the Texas death chamber for killing his three daughters in 1991.

"Scientific evidence supports the conclusion that an innocent man was executed based on unreliable science," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that has helped free dozens of wrongly convicted inmates based on DNA evidence.

Scheck asked a newly established investigative agency, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, to examine "scientific negligence and misconduct" by state fire marshal investigators in the Willingham case and that of another death row inmate, Ernest Willis. Willis was freed in 2004 after prosecutors determined that arson investigators had based their trial testimony on faulty science.

Willingham was convicted using the same investigative techniques discredited in the Willis case, Scheck said.

"Willis cannot be found 'actually innocent' and Willingham executed based on the same scientific evidence," Scheck said in a letter to the forensic commission.

Of course the prosecutors office disupted the conclusions (that is their job, and they are lawyers-- have you ever seen a prosecutors office, well aware of today's letigious society, ever say 'yes, we did railroad that guy' even when DNA evidence, confessions by the real criminals or some other proof of innocence gets someone released from death row?) But their spokesman said something that was telling in the denial:

That said, Hagins continued, the agency will examine the report "to make sure it's good science and not somebody with an opinion. If it makes valid points, of course we'll look at it and consider it because science changes and we're always learning more.

Of course since the report was written by four of the top arson investigators in the country, it seems likely they will have something to look at. Will they learn more? Maybe. The conclusions in the report had to do with the temperature of the house fire (which even I know can reach over a thousand degrees, based on present science), the burn pattern and video of the site which disputed the original conclusions.

But here is my question: If the science of this stuff is still developing, why are we in such a hurry to end a man's life over science that we don't understand yet. Most conservatives argue against increasing pollution standards based on the fact that we are still learning more about global warming, so are they saying that a scrubber in a smokestack is more important than a man's life?

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