Exoneration comes too late

death row inmateoriginally published:
12th September 2009

Five years after his execution in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham is back in the news. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine establishes that evidence used to convict Willingham for setting a fire that killed his three children was based on junk science.

In addition, the prosecution used a jailhouse snitch who lied to curry favor with the district attorney. Until his dying breath, Willingham insisted on his innocence. Now a careful review by one of the world’s foremost arson experts has found that the fire was accidental. Willingham has been vindicated, for what little good it does him.

There’s just no getting around the problem that a mistake in a death penalty case cannot be undone after the sentence is carried out. Such mistakes are not rare. Since 1973, 135 death row inmates in the United States have been exonerated and released from prison, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

In an unusual move, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered a Georgia appeals court to review evidence in the case of Troy Davis, who has languished on death row for 19 years. Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a Savannah police officer although no forensic evidence was ever presented against him. Seven of the nine eyewitnesses who implicated Davis now claim they gave false testimony after being unduly pressured by police.

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