Six Innocent Death Row Exonerees to Lead the 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty Saturday Oct 30 2010 in Austin at the Texas Capitol
Contacts: Scott Cobb, Texas Moratorium Network 512-552-4743
Elizabeth Gilbert will be one of the speakers at the 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty at 2 PM on October 30th at the Texas Capitol in Austin. She is a Houston teacher and playwright who befriended Texas death row prisoner Todd Willingham. Her story is featured in the New Yorker article by David Grann about the case as well at the Frontline Documentary “Death by Fire” (Click to watch online). If it were not for Elizabeth’s involvement in the case, in addition to Todd’s family, Todd Willingham’s innocence likely would never have come to light. Anyone who hears Elizabeth’s story will know that it is indeed possible to make a difference in the world if you only take the time and make the effort.
Elizabeth actively investigated the case on her own. She became convinced of Todd’s innocence and was instrumental in helping his family find an expert fire investigator to examine his case. The investigator found no evidence for arson and sent a report to Governor Rick Perry. However, the State failed to halt Willingham’s execution in 2004. Further arson investigations have also found no evidence for arson.
Frontline has an interview on their website with Elizabeth. Below is an excerpt in which she talks about her meeting with Todd’s former wife Stacy:
Can you describe your meeting with Stacy?
Stacy came in, and I felt that she was very genuine, and I think this was the first time she had really talked to anybody outside [of the official investigation]. … But to me [she] was just like, “Oh, sure, I’ll meet you; I’ll tell you this is the truth.” … I told her I was a writer; I’m from Houston. I interviewed her; I taped her. And she seemed kind of reserved, nervous, just a person who had a lot of tragedy in her life.
I had heard from Todd that her mother had been murdered, and she had been there. So it seemed like her life had been filled with tragedy, … and she seemed genuinely to feel Todd had not done this. … She really convinced me that she felt that an injustice had been done. … She didn’t feel like he was capable of doing that.
So you believe Stacy told the truth?
Yes, I really do.
Do you remember how she said it?
… She cried, and I just remember her saying, “Todd is not capable of doing that,” just acknowledging that he loved his children. I sensed this very pained individual. … After the conviction, and after Todd was on death row, Stacy decided to get a divorce. She didn’t visit him on death row.
The annual march is a joint project organized by several Texas anti-death penalty organizations: Texas Moratorium Network, the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Texas Death Penalty Education and Resource Center, Death Penalty Free Austin, and Kids Against the Death Penalty. Other sponsors include Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing.
The new Frontline documentary about the Todd Willingham case, “Death by Fire” aired last night on TV and is now online. Click here to visit the Frontline website and watch the film online. It is embedded below divided into 6 parts.
11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty
October 30, 2010
The Capitol (11th and Congress)
The Texas Fire Marshal’s Association is holding its 12th Annual Texas Fire Marshals’ Conference Oct 18-22 in Austin at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. It will be interesting to see if any of their members will criticize State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado for writing a letter to the Texas Forensic Science Commission standing by his agency’s role in the error-filled fire investigation that led to the conviction of Todd Willingham. Maldonado is scheduled to speak Monday at 9 AM to welcome attendees and again on Thursday Oct 21 from 1-1:50 to give an update from the State Fire Marshal’s Office (see the full schedule here).
The Texas Tribune reported that during the Court of Inquiry last Thursday “(Barry) Scheck asked fire expert John Lentini to explain current fire marshal Paul Maldonado’s continued support of Vasquez’s investigations. “He is misinformed,” Lentini said, adding that Maldonado’s position “cannot be explained in terms of valid science or logic.”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office stands behind its controversial conclusion that Cameron Todd Willingham started the house fire that killed his three children in 1991, contradicting arson experts and scientists who insist the agency relied on bad science in its investigation.In a pointed letter to the Texas Forensic Science Commission , which is nearing the end of a contentious review of the Willingham arson investigation, Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado defended his agency’s handling of the case that led to Willingham’s execution in 2004.In July, the commission announced a tentative finding that investigators employed “flawed science” — including now-debunked beliefs that certain fire behaviors point to arson — to conclude that Willingham intentionally set fire to his Corsicana home.But Maldonado said his agency’s investigation remains valid, even after modern, scientific arson standards are applied.“We stand by the original investigator’s report and conclusions,” Maldonado said in his Aug. 20 letter to the commission. “Should any subsequent analysis be performed to test other theories and possibilities of the cause and origin of the fire, we will of course re-examine the report again.”
Former Texas Governor Mark White said in Newsweek about Todd Willingham: “If there’s no arson, there’s no crime, and, therefore, he is innocent.”
Below is a video of Governor White speaking about Todd Willingham and the death penalty after he delivered the summation on behalf of Todd Willingham’s family members at the Court of Inquiry in Austin on October 14, 2010.
Video by Texas Moratorium Network.
An advocate for the family of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed six years ago after a fire killed three of his daughters, is sharply questioning the objectivity of the head of the Texas commission looking into whether the man was rightly convicted.
Stephen Saloom, the policy director of the nonprofit legal advocacy group the Innocence Project, brought up a comment attributed last week to John Bradley, chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, during the public comments portion of that panel’s meeting Friday.
According to the published report, Bradley said that anti-death penalty groups wanted to hold up Willingham — convicted in 1992 after a jury determined he deliberately set the fire that killed his three girls — as a “poster boy” for their cause. Bradley questioned that approach, calling Willingham “a guilty monster.”
“This is a very clear statement, ‘Willingham is a guilty monster,’ that brings into question the reliability of your chairman,” said Saloom.
Bradley downplayed the criticism as “New York lawyers” making “personal attacks, rather than legal arguments.”
Founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project is a New York-based nonprofit that pursues legal challenges and push policy reforms aimed at exonerating people wrongfully convicted of crimes and preventing future injustices. Death-penalty opponents have said an impartial review of Willingham’s case could lead to the unprecedented admission that the state executed an innocent man.
Willingham’s daughters — 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron — died when their Corsicana, Texas, home went up in flames in 1991. The state’s fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, told jurors in Willingham’s trial that the fire was set intentionally and spread quickly due to an inflammable liquid.
While a jury convicted Willingham of murder, three reviews of evidence by outside experts found the arson determination was based on outdated or faulty science. The first of those reports was sent to Gov. Rick Perry’s office and submitted to appeals courts before Willingham’s execution, while the other two came after his death.
The last of those was ordered in 2008 by the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission, itself authorized in 2005 by an act of the Texas state legislature. In that report, Maryland-based fire science expert Craig Beyler concluded that the arson finding “could not be sustained” — based on current-day investigative standards, as well as those in place in 1991. But two days before the panel was set to hear from Beyler, Gov. Rick Perry shook up the commission with three appointments, including one to replace the panel’s chairman.
Perry later called the move “pretty normal protocol,” since the departing members’ terms had expired. As governor, he had signed off on Willingham’s execution, and critics have accused him of trying to derail a review of that case. Perry has said he’s confident Willingham was guilty, while police in Corsicana say other evidence beyond the arson testimony supports the prosecution.
The Forensic Science Commission’s movement on the investigation has slowed as the board’s new chairman, Bradley, urged a review of the panel’s operating rules. Bradley, who was appointed to his current job as Williamson County district attorney in 2001 ahead of his election one year later, said this summer that the Willingham probe “absolutely” will continue, though he would not say when. In July, the Forensic Science Commission found that arson investigators used flawed science in their probe of the Willingham matter, but were not negligent and did not commit misconduct.
At Friday’s hearing, Saloom noted “concerns” about several moves that Bradley had made and questioned whether it was necessary to “revisit everything” that the commission had done prior to Bradley’s appointment.
“It’s pretty clear that the commission was going along pretty swimmingly until Gov. Perry … appointed Bradley as the new commissioner,” added Paul Cates in a phone interview with CNN. “Since he has been part of the new commission, he’s tried to stop the commission from doing what we believe that it should be doing.”
Later in the hearing, several of the Forensic Commission’s members engaged in a heated exchange over the Willingham case and the panel’s role. Dr. Garry Adams, for instance, said “it is important to maintain credibility” given the intense media spotlight on the case, while fellow members Lance Evans and Dr. Sarah Kerrigan also questioned the validity of Willingham’s conviction.
But Bradley said that much of the debate over Willingham’s case was being fanned by the media and other outside influences. He also noted that authorities, ranging from parole boards to the U.S. Supreme Court, had looked into the trial and conviction ahead of Willingham’s execution.
“We’re being used, and we should recognize that,” Bradley said.
On Thursday in Texas, District Court Judge Charlie Baird rebuffed a request by Navarro County District Attorney Lowell Thompson that he step aside as he opened a hearing into whether Willingham’s name should be cleared six years after his execution. Members of Willingham’s family pushed for the hearing, claiming that “junk science” led to a wrongful conviction and execution.
To see the photos on Flickr, click here.
News reports of today’s Court of Inquiry hearing in Todd Willingham innocence case.
The New York Times reports in Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions:
But they also say that the hearing is more than symbolic — it could cast in a new light the Lone Star State’s record on executions. And more broadly, they argue, it is a cautionary tale about the power of flawed science to sway a courtroom, and a glaring injustice that could affect debates over the fairness of the death penalty.
That debate has been framed, in part, by a 2006 opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court, in which he said that the dissent in a case had not cited “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”
Many who oppose the death penalty have taken Justice Scalia’s statement as a challenge, and argue that the Willingham case is their proof.
During an unprecedented hearing completed just before an appeals court ordered it to stop, state District Judge Charlie Baird on Thursday heard from two leading fire experts who said Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, was convicted based on faulty science.
A jury convicted Willingham in 1992 of killing his three young daughters by setting fire to his Corsicana house. Shortly before his execution, the first in a string of experts found that investigators relied on bogus science to determine that the fire was intentionally set.
“There is not a single item of evidence at that fire scene that would even suggest this was arson,” said Gerald Hurst, an Austin chemist who has studied fire for decades.
Lawyers for Willingham’s family petitioned Baird last month to pronounce that Willingham was wrongfully executed and to determine whether there is probable cause that state officials committed a crime in their handling of his case just before execution.
After a hearing that lasted a little more than three hours, Baird said he would make a ruling on the case at a later date.
About that same time — just before 5 p.m. — the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ordered Baird not to take any further action in the case.
Newsweek is reporting that former Texas Governor Mark White will deliver the summation at the Court of Inquiry on Todd Willingham’s innocence. The hearing is scheduled to reconvene on Thursday, October 14, at 1:30 PM in Judge Charlie Baird’s courtroom. White says in Newsweek, “If there’s no arson, there’s no crime, and, therefore, he is innocent.”
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