September 2, 2009 by D Stack
Then Abraham drew nearer to him and said: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty, so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?”
The LORD replied, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
– Genesis 18:23-26 (New American Bible translation)
It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)
The September 7, 2009 issue of The New Yorker has an article entitled “Trial by Fire – Did Texas execute an innocent man?” by David Grann. It is a lengthy article, but well worth the read. It tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham who was found guilty of arson in the fire that destroyed his home and killed his daughters. He was executed for this on February 17, 2004, still proclaiming his innocence. Shortly before his execution, Doctor Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and fire expert, re-investigated the case and concluded that the fire was not arson but rather an accident. However, this conclusion was too late to grant a new trial or otherwise save Willingham from execution. The article closes with a discussion of a reinvestigation of this case by the state of Texas:
In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. The first cases that are being reviewed by the commission are those of Willingham and Willis. In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.
The commission will release its report next year. It is possible they may rule despite the contrary evidence Willingham was still guilty – the prosecutor in the case claims so, despite conceding problems with the arson investigation. I’m a little unclear what sort of case there is without the arson. He brings up evidence that Willingham was not a good man, having struck or beaten his wife. While this is reprehensible, it is not what Willingham was charged with. It seems very likely to me that in this case a man was executed who was innocent of the crime he was accused of and what would certainly seem to me to be within the boundaries of “reasonable doubt”.
While I personally object to the death penalty primarily on moral grounds, I can fathom some cases where it may be needed. Not many, but some. What do you do to a prisoner who kills another prisoner? Or who escapes from prison and goes on a murderous rampage? These are incredibly rare cases, but they are not nonexistent. So I stop short of objecting to the death penalty on every possible case, even on moral grounds. But I do object to it when a life prison term is possible. And I believe honest people must agree that it is near-certain that at some point a man or woman has been executed for a crime they are innocent of. And it will likely happen again. These are mistakes that are beyond our power to repair. And that is, to use an overused phrase, an abomination of justice.