Justice, Texas style

Big news to those of who think the death penalty as practiced and the use of jailhouse “snitches” to gain convictions are a deplorable scourge of the American justice system.   I’ve mentioned several times before the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas based on junk fire science (an issue that was definitely raised in time to prevent the execution).  (You can still read all of David Grann’s terrific New Yorker piece on this for free, unlike most New Yorker articles).  To me, even worse than junk science (hey, at least they are trying to be scientific.  sort of) is the idea that murderers are routinely “confessing” to their cellmates they’ve never met before and nobody else.  And, oh yeah, those cellmates get a reduced sentence.  Sure, that’s credible.  Why any jury would ever believe this (yet they seem to all the time) is a fundamental flaw in how our jury system works.  Yet, it happens every day.  Now, we have evidence that this was a key part of Willingham’s (almost surely erroneous) conviction as well:

Mr. Willingham was convicted on charges of setting the 1991 fire in Corsicana, Tex., that killed his three children, and was sentenced to death the next year. The conviction rested on two pillars of evidence: analysis by arson investigators, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, who said that Mr. Willingham had confessed the crime to him…

What has changed is that investigators for the Innocence Project have discovered a curt handwritten note in Mr. Webb’s file in the district attorney’s office in Corsicana. The current district attorney, R. Lowell Thompson, made the files available to the Innocence Project lawyers, and in late November one of the lawyers, Bryce Benjet, received a box of photocopies.

As he worked through the stack of papers, he saw a note scrawled on the inside of the district attorney’s file folder stating that Mr. Webb’s charges were to be listed as robbery in the second degree, not the heavier first-degree robbery charge he had originally been convicted on, “based on coop in Willingham.”

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, called the note a “smoking pistol” in the case.

“We’re reaching out to the principals to see if there is an innocent explanation for this,” he said. “I don’t see one.”

Judge Jackson did not respond to several requests for comment.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t.  Despite the title of the post, this kind of miscarriage of justice (fortunately, usually not as extreme) happens in every state.  It’s just worse in places like Texas.  As long as we continue to let prosecutors get away with stuff like this in a relentless pursuit of convictions instead of justice– and there’s little sign anything is changing in this regard– innocent people will continue to be wrongly and needlessly convicted.  America can do better.  If only we would show the will to do so.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Justice, Texas style

  1. Alex says:

    It’s not worse in Texas. The only difference between Texas and (most) other states is that Texas is more bloodthirsty.

    But this kind of blatant prosecutor misconduct (hiding exculpatory evidence) and these manipulative tactics exist in every jurisdiction at every level of crime. It’s a travesty.

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