Will Texas Admit It Wrongly Executed Cameron Willingham?

October 24, 2012

Death chamber in Huntsville, Texas
The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

Today, the family of Cameron Todd Willingham filed a petition calling for his posthumous exoneration.  Exoneration, because he is almost certainly innocent. Posthumous because the state of Texas executed him anyway. More info can be found here, courtesy of the Innocence Project.

A Texas father of three, Willingham was convicted and executed for the alleged murder of his three daughters by arson. However, in a 2011 report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded that unreliable fire science led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction and 2004 execution. Evidence cited as proof of an intentionally set fire, such as pour patterns, discoloration and “crazed” glass, has since been discredited.

If the petition is accepted and Willingham is posthumously exonerated, he will join with Timothy Cole in Texas, and Joe Arridy and Lena Baker in Colorado and Georgia, who, among others, were wrongfully convicted and executed or died in prison while serving out their sentence.

Timothy Cole, 1st Posthumous Exoneration in Texas

26-year-old Texas Tech student Timothy Cole was the first person to be posthumously exonerated in Texas. He had been wrongfully accused of the 1985 rape of fellow student Michelle Mallin. In 2008, DNA tests proved that Lubbock County police got the wrong man, but the finding came after Cole had died in prison in 1999 from complications with asthma connected to his forced labor in cotton fields.

The real perpetrator, Jerry Wayne Johnson, wrote to Lubbock County officials as soon as the statute of limitations had run out in 1995. At this time, Cole’s life could yet have been saved and his innocence proven, but Judge Jim Bob Darnell, who as an assistant district attorney had prosecuted Cole, chose to ignore the letters. Only in 2007 was a serious investigation launched into the case, prompted by Johnson’s insistent letters to newspapers and the Innocence Project. After Lubbock courts rejected the request for a court inquiry into the case, the inquiry moved to Travis County where, on February 13, 2009 District Judge Charlie Baird formally exonerated Cole.

Lena Baker, Self Defense=Electric Chair?

In 1944, Lena Baker, an African American Georgia woman, worked for a white man named Ernest Knight. Knight locked her in his gristmill against her will, and when she tried to escape, he threatened her. She grabbed his rifle and shot him in self-defense. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in one day by an all-white all-male jury. Baker became the only woman to be executed by electrocution in Georgia. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles officially pardoned her in 2005, stating that Baker “could have been charged with voluntary manslaughter, rather than murder,” which would have gotten her 15 years in prison, not execution. A dedication ceremony for a new headstone for her grave in was held in Cuthbert, GA in 2011.

Joe Arridy, Innocent, with an IQ of 46

Joe Arridy was convicted as an accomplice to a 1936 murder. 72 years after his execution, on January 7, 2011, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter officially pardoned Arridy. His case included false and coerced confessions, a high likelihood that Arridy was not in town at the time of the crime, and an admission of guilt by another man. Arridy also had an IQ of 46 and reportedly “functioned like a toddler.” Gov. Ritter stated: “Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”

Whether the Texas government of Rick Perry, who executed Willingham despite knowing better and tried to quash the re-investigation of his case, will show such decency is of course an open question.  Whether our error-prone justice system should have to the power over life and death is not an open question – it shouldn’t.