My home state of Texas is undoubtedly known for a lot of things, like barbecue and good music, as well as crazy politicking and the death penalty. This year, the state’s attitude on capital punishment has come under the national microscope. A case that has recently gained long overdue national attention has been nearly 20 years in the making. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted in 1992 of lighting a house fire that killed his three young daughters. The lynchpin of the prosecution’s argument was the testimony of a state fire marshal and local fire investigator, who concluded that Willingham had trailed lighter fluid throughout the house before setting it ablaze. Willingham was executed in 2004.
In 2006, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, responding to complaints of flawed analysis of the crime scene, hired an arson expert to review the case. Along with other independent experts who examined the case, he found the investigative techniques used to convict Willingham were fundamentally erroneous and scientifically unsound. The only traces of lighter fluid were due to damage to the family barbecue; the substance was not spread throughout the house as was originally stated. Even Willingham’s prosecutor has admitted that the report was “flawed.”
In another Texas case finally coming under review, a judge refused a stay of execution for a man on death row because the clerk’s office at which his lawyers were supposed to file the request had already closed for the evening. The inmate’s lawyers were prompted to file the last-minute request, because the U.S. Supreme Court had decided earlier that day to hear a case about the legality of lethal injection; however, the lawyers had been plagued by difficulties with their printer and were unable to send the documents earlier. The judge refused to keep the Court of Criminal Appeals open long enough for the lawyers to file the request, and the inmate was executed later that evening.
Keller faced civil charges; supporters argued that she had not understood the situation as it had been explained to her by the court’s general counsel, who had relayed the request for a stay of execution and alleged errors on the part of the inmate’s lawyers. Her supporters also argued that the inmate, who had been convicted of rape and murder charges, had been through years of appeals and that by refusing to keep the appeals court open, Keller was simply upholding the will of the jury that had found him guilty. Yet there is something undeniably chilling about the idea of a man put to death because of the will of a single judge making an arbitrary decision about office hours — or, for that matter, because of a malfunctioning printer.
Whether or not a person believes that the death penalty is a legitimate form of punishment — an issue so monumental it warrants its own debate — the fact remains that it is legal in the United States and is likely to remain so in a majority of states in the future. What are not acceptable under the rule of law are these kinds of mistakes and bureaucratic screw-ups. Entrusting the state with the power to make life-or-death decisions is a weighty enough matter, but with cases like these coming to light, it requires more consideration than ever.
Casey Petroff is a freshman in the School of International Service and a moderate liberal columnist for The Eagle. You can reach her at edpage @theeagleonline.com.