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Innocent, but Executed

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In his final hours on death row, Cameron Todd Willingham and his attorneys tried frantically to show the governor of Texas a new scientific report proving his innocence. The evidence was apparently ignored, and Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.

During his trial, he refused prosecutors' offer to give him life in prison instead of the death penalty. He told them he was innocent, and he wouldn't agree to any deals. As he was strapped down in the execution chamber, just before the lethal injection began, he proclaimed his innocence one last time.

An extraordinary new investigative report in the New Yorker shows that Willingham was telling the truth. He was innocent. David Grann's report, in the September 7 issue, exhaustively deconstructs every aspect of the case and shows that none of the evidence used to convict Willingham was valid. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1974, Grann's report constitutes the strongest case on record in this country that an innocent man was executed.

Willingham was convicted of murdering his two young children by arson. He spent 12 years on death row in Texas before he was executed. Forensic science that supposedly proved the fire was intentionally set was central to Willingham's conviction was, in fact, completely invalid -- which the experts who testified should have known in 1992. A state forensic science commission in Texas is officially looking into the case and selected a widely respected expert to analyze whether the forensic testimony was valid. Last week the expert filed a report confirming what five other leading arson experts have found -- what passed for arson analysis in the Willingham case had no scientific basis, and the scientific facts in Willingham's case were the same as the case of Ernest Willis. In an entirely separate case, Willis was sent to death row in Texas for an arson murder of family members but, luckily, in his the state recognized the arson analysis was wrong. Willis was fully exonerated just months after Willingham was executed.

The state forensic commission in Texas is still finishing its work on Willingham's case, but David Grann's New Yorker article examines the entire case, including the jailhouse informant who plainly gave false testimony and the circumstantial evidence, flimsy in the first place, that was not what it appeared to be to the jury. After reading Grann's report, fair-minded people will know beyond a reasonable doubt that an innocent person was executed

So what now? Whether our criminal justice system has executed an innocent man should no longer be an open question. We don't know how often it happens, but we know it has happened. Cameron Todd Willingham's case proves that.

The focus turns to how we can stop it from happening again. As long as our system of justice makes mistakes -- including the ultimate mistake -- we cannot continue executing people.

At the same time, the problems in the Willingham case are not limited to people facing the death penalty. The Innocence Project has found that forensic science problems were a factor in 50 percent of all wrongful convictions that were later overturned with DNA testing. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that many forensic disciplines are not rooted in solid science. The report called on Congress to create a National Institute of Forensic Science to set nationwide standards and ensure that evidence used in criminal cases is sufficiently scientific. This can be done cost-effectively and without creating a large bureaucracy.

It's not just possible to improve forensic science in this country -- it's imperative. If Cameron Todd Willingham's case teaches us nothing else, it should make improving the reliability of our criminal justice system a top priority nationwide. It's not enough to feel bad that an innocent man was executed; we must use this moment to do better.

Barry Scheck is Co-Director of the Innocence Project.

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