Few people can comprehend the pain felt by the family of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose survivors recently stood with us at the Capitol to ask the state to investigate his wrongful execution.
The state of Texas has acted admirably in the creation of the Forensic Science Commission, which has critiqued the fire science in the case; and the State Fire Marshal's Office has, in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas, implemented a review of past arson cases where convictions may have been based on similarly unreliable evidence. Improvements also have been made in the judicial system with the passage of the Michael Morton Act, new requirements for DNA testing in death penalty prosecutions and the creation of a new procedure to consider scientific evidence that contradicts that which led to a conviction.
But the clemency process that failed to discover Willingham's innocence in 2004 remains essentially unchanged. A recent study by a committee of the American Bar Association found that the Board of Pardons and Paroles' consideration of capital cases is woefully inadequate - Texas does not meet any of the eleven minimum guidelines for an adequate process. This is a gaping hole in the safety net against wrongful execution.
Although reasonable people can debate the effectiveness of the death penalty or whether it is morally appropriate, no one can endorse a system that allows the execution of an innocent person. And we need to do everything in our power to make sure that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the last stop in our criminal justice system, has the resources and the procedures necessary to do its job.
Earlier coverage of Todd Willingham's case begins at the link.
In 2005, Texas Appleseed and the Texas Innocence Network published, "The Role of Mercy: Safegaurding Texas Justice Through Clemency Reform," which examined best practices in executive clemency. The Appendix contains comparative state information. Though several Texas lawmakers have pushed for clemency reform, the process remains as it was in 2005, when the report was issued.
Related posts are in the clemency category index.
Additional coverage of Michael Morton's exoneration and pursuit of criminal justice reforms is also available.