Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Annals of the Law

The New Yorker has been blowing my mind with great writing recently, but for me this article about the execution of a man convicted (in all likelihood wrongly) of killing his family by arson stands out. It speaks not just to the insanity of the death penalty, but also to the tendency of conservatives to resist for death penalty cases the same evidentiary and procedural reforms that they scream are necessary in, say, medical malpractice cases. Read it.


Blogger hillary said...

This is a fantastic article. I'm almost done with it.

9/16/2009 8:54 AM  
Blogger Ahab said...

Well that was uplifting . . .

On February 13th, four days before Willingham was scheduled to be executed, he got a call from Reaves, his attorney. Reaves told him that the fifteen members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews an application for clemency and had been sent Hurst’s report, had made their decision.

“What is it?” Willingham asked.

“I’m sorry,” Reaves said. “They denied your petition.”

The vote was unanimous. Reaves could not offer an explanation: the board deliberates in secret, and its members are not bound by any specific criteria. The board members did not even have to review Willingham’s materials, and usually don’t debate a case in person; rather, they cast their votes by fax—a process that has become known as “death by fax.” Between 1976 and 2004, when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas had approved only one application for clemency from a prisoner on death row. A Texas appellate judge has called the clemency system “a legal fiction.” Reaves said of the board members, “They never asked me to attend a hearing or answer any questions.”

The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor’s office and the board pertaining to Hurst’s report. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” Barry Scheck said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”

LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the time, told me of the process, “You don’t vote guilt or innocence. You don’t retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order and there are no glaring errors.” He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, “in my time there had never been one called.” When I asked him why Hurst’s report didn’t constitute evidence of “glaring errors,” he said, “We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them.” Alvin Shaw, another board member at the time, said that the case didn’t “ring a bell,” adding, angrily, “Why would I want to talk about it?” Hurst calls the board’s actions “unconscionable.”

9/16/2009 3:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Big Cat also clued me in (via Huevos) to this movie "Murder on a Sunday Morning" which is a similar tale (I'm guessing, having heard a little about the article but not read it) but with a happier ending. That one also spawned more own personal man crush on one Pat McGinnis, Public Defender extraordinaire. Speaking of which, I think we need to get you up in a PD's office Big Cat.


9/16/2009 4:49 PM  
Blogger Huevos McGringo said...

great story. that shit is terrible. the worst part is that none of it is really that surprising.

big cat, i like PC's train of thought...

9/17/2009 2:14 PM  
Blogger il Gatto Grande said...


Do you have the inside scoop on openings in metro ATL? Hit me with it.


9/17/2009 4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The focus on the "satanic" tattoos and posters reminds of the West Memphis Three, , another potential story of wrongful conviction. One or more of those guys remains on death row, with evidence of their interest in 'demonic' music like Metallica having been used to secure their convictions


9/18/2009 12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just looked at the West Memphis 3 website for the first time in like two years. Given the new evidence, I think it may be safe to leave it at "story of wrongful conviction" rather than "potential story"

check it out at the sight may have changed but you'll be redirected.


9/18/2009 12:38 AM  

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