Statement by Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty on the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham:
Members of the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a national organization whose aim is the abolition of the death penalty, are horrified and saddened by the recent conclusion of a panel of prominent fire experts convened by Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project that a 1991 house fire in Corsicana, Texas could not have been intentionally set.
A Texas jury at the time found based on mistaken testimony of officials who had investigated the scene that the fire was indeed arson. It convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, owner of the home and father of the three children that died in the fire, of capital murder. He received the death sentence for these crimes. Throughout the trial and subsequent appeals, Willingham adamantly maintained his innocence, yet the highest judges in the state of Texas and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his wrongful conviction and death sentence. This ordeal culminated in Willingham’s execution in 2004.
The Texas Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Rick Perry received a report written by another arson expert commissioned by Willingham’s defense team detailing the exact same conclusion, that the fire could not have been intentional and therefore Willingham was innocent, in the days leading up to Willingham’s execution. The majority of the Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Perry rejected the findings of this report and allowed Willingham’s execution to proceed. Only now, two years after the execution when proper reparations are not possible are state officials recognizing that this execution was in error.
The panel’s findings mean one thing: Texas executed an innocent man. Willingham was telling us the truth when he repeatedly claimed that he was innocent, that he had not intentionally set his home on fire, and that he had not murdered his children. The report received by the Pardon and Parole Board and the Governor before the execution took place surely raised a significant doubt about Willingham’s guilt. This should have been enough to get this innocent man a reprieve from execution until all questions were settled regarding his case. Instead, the state chose to allow a man to die that should not have.
This is the first instance in the history of the nation in which we can be as certain as possible that the state executed an innocent man. CEDP of Austin calls for immediate action on the part of officials in the state of Texas to ensure that an error of this gravity is never committed again. We call on the state of Texas, including Governor Rick Perry, the newly formed Forensic Science Commission, and the Texas legislature, to readily undertake a full investigation of Willingham’s case and ensure that every error in the case is uncovered and made public. If the commission finds that any of these errors were the product of willful neglect or malicious wrongdoing, we must hold those responsible, including members of the Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Perry, accountable and remove them from any position of power that would allow them to influence the course of a criminal case again. We also demand a public apology from the Texas Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Perry for failing to stop the execution of an innocent person. Willingham’s family should also receive compensation for their loss if appropriate.
The Texas legislature must fully fund the Forensic Science Commission and empower them to investigate the evidence used to convict the other 666 people incarcerated in Texas for arson crimes. The commission must have the power to determine if the same errors that wrongfully sent Cameron Todd Willingham to the death chamber in Huntsville were factors in other arson convictions.
Further, we call on the Texas legislature, Governor Perry, and all Texas citizens to reexamine the application of the death penalty in Texas. The most poor, abused, and ill members of society have shouldered the consequences of error in the administration of the death penalty. Cameron Todd Willingham was only one of many uneducated, poor people executed by the state of Texas. The overwhelming majority of those executed by Texas were low-income people who had little access to the excellent legal representation and resources at trial needed to avoid a conviction and a death sentence.
Cameron Todd Willingham was one also of many death row residents whose claims of innocence went unheeded. All those in power who heard his claims of innocence thought that the physical evidence collected from the fire was unquestionable proof that a crime had been committed. Willingham’s case teaches us that physical evidence, however convincing at the time, might not be completely conclusive. Rodney Reed, who now resides on Texas death row and continues to maintain his innocence, was convicted of the murder of Stacey Stites based on one single piece of physical evidence. There was other existing physical evidence pointing to other suspects collected from the crime scene. This evidence, however, was not introduced at trial, and serious questions of egregious error remain about the forensic evidence used to convict Reed. It would be tragic if the state executed Reed and other men and women in his situation only to find out later that they were indeed, like Willingham, innocent.
We must implement needed reforms to our criminal justice system. However, no matter how close the state of Texas reaches to near perfect administration of the death penalty, a chance will always exist that the state could execute an innocent person. However small that chance becomes, it will always carry huge consequences. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty finds that these brutal consequences far outweigh any possible benefit a reasonable person could find in continuing executions. One innocent person’s life is too high a price to pay to continue the use of this outdated, inhumane punishment. This system has claimed the life of one innocent person already, and it would be an embarrassment and a source of shame to let this happen again.
Besides the actions it must take on Willingham’s case specifically to rectify their errors, the state of Texas must proceed quickly and in a manner most likely to protect all innocent life. The safest and most reasonable action the state can take is to declare a moratorium on executions now. During the moratorium, the state would suspend all executions and an independent panel would thoroughly investigate the death penalty’s administration in Texas in order to uncover injustices in its application.
In spite of any support a particular legislator or state official might have for the death penalty, CEDP expects them to support an investigation into its application in order to find existing errors and injustices. This could save the lives of innocent persons who are still on death row. Cameron Todd Willingham cannot be brought back to life, but his memory can propel us to justice for others. We must together send our state a message: no more wrongful executions!