The Texas Forensic Science Commission will devote the entire January 7, 2011 meeting to the case of Todd Willingham. They are scheduled to hear testimony from arson experts. The hearing starts at 9:30 AM, but we plan to be outside the building at 8:30 AM with signs. Central Services Building, 1711 San Jacinto Boulevard in Austin. We will go inside before the hearing starts. Facebook event page.
There will likely be a period devoted to receiving comments from the public. We need members of the public to show up and bring signs to let the Commission know that Texans believe that an innocent person has been executed and that Texas should stop all executions through a moratorium on executions.
A hearing on the constitutionality of the Texas death penalty will be held in Judge Kevin Fine’s courtroom in Houston on Monday, December 6, at 9 AM. Read more at the Texas Tribune.
If you live in Houston or can be there, there will be a demonstration against the Texas death penalty outside the courthouse at 8 AM on Monday (RSVP on the Facebook event page) We will go inside for the hearing at 9 AM.
Location: Harris County Criminal Justice Center
1201 Franklin, 19th Floor
Houston, Texas 77002
Texas’ use of capital punishment will undergo legal scrutiny at this hearing. Evidence and arguments will likely be presented that there is substantial risk that the state’s death penalty law does not adequately protect against the execution of an innocent person.
John Edward Green, Jr., the defendant in Texas v. Green, is charged in the fatal shooting of a 34-year-old Houston woman during a 2008 robbery. Green’s defense attorneys will argue that a number of factors in Texas’ death penalty system increase the risk of wrongful executions in Texas, including a lack of safeguards to protect against mistaken eyewitness identification, faulty forensic evidence, incompetent lawyers at the appellate level, failures to guard against false confessions and a history of racial discrimination in jury selection.
Events are building in Texas that are similar to events in Illinois that led to a moratorium on executions there in 2000. In 1999, Illinois created a couple of commissions to study the death penalty, the Task Force on the Death Penalty was created by the Illinois legislature and the Illinois Supreme Court established a study committee on the death penalty. Then in 2000, a moratorium was declared in Illinois and the governor established the Commission on Capital Punishment to study flaws in the administration of the Illinois death penalty and recommend reform.
The Texas Legislature should also enact a moratorium on executions in the upcoming session and create a commission to study the death penalty.
The 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty was held in Austin at the Texas Capitol at 2 PM on October 30, 2010.
Special guests this year included 6 exonerated former death row prisoners Shujaa Graham, Ron Keine, Gary Drinkard, Curtis McCarty, Albert Burrell and Greg Wilhoit. Curtis spent 21 years in prison – including 19 years on death row – in Oklahoma for a crime he did not commit. Shujaa spent 3 years on death row in California for a crime he did not commit. Ron spent two years on death row in New Mexico for a crime he did not commit. Gary spent almost 6 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Albert spent 13 years on death row in Louisiana for a crime he did not commit. Greg spent five years on death row in Oklahoma for a crime he did not commit.
MC’s of the March were Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network and Lily Hughes of Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Bill Pelke also spoke. Bill recently authored a book entitled Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, which details the May 14, 1985 murder of his grandmother Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher, by four teenage girls. Paula Cooper who was deemed to be the ringleader was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. She was fifteen-years-old at the time of the murder.
Bill Pelke originally support the sentence of death for Cooper, but went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. He became involved in an international crusade on Paula’s behalf and in 1989 after over 2 million people from Italy signed petitions and Pope John Paul II’s request for mercy, Paula was taken off of death row and her sentence commuted to sixty years.
Elizabeth Gilbert will also speak 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). 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.
Bud Welch was also a speaker. In April 1995, Bud Welch’s 23 year old daughter was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the months after her death, he changed from supporting the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh to taking a public stand against it. His change of heart was inspired in part by Julie Marie herself. Once, while listening to a radio report on an execution in Texas, she had turned to him and said, “Dad, that makes me sick. All those Texans are doing is teaching all the children down there to hate. The murderer did wrong, but now the government has stooped to his level.”
Bud eventually arranged to meet with Timothy McVeigh’s father, Bill. “I saw a deep pain in a father’s eye, but also an incredible love for his son.” Bud says, “I was able to tell him that I truly understood the pain that he was going through, and that he – as I – was a victim of what happened in Oklahoma City.”
Ron Carlson, whose sister Deborah Ruth Carlson Davis Thornton and Jerry Lynn Dean were murdered in Houston with a pick-ax by Karla Faye Tucker and Daniel Ryan Garrett. Ron opposes the death pealty and witnessed Tucker’s execution in Huntsville at her request. Other speakers will be announced later.
Rodrick Reed, brother of Texas Death Row prisoner Rodney Reed also spoke. Rodney and his family are fighting to prove his innocence in the 1996 strangling of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop County. Rodney’s case is a troubling mixture of prosecutorial misconduct, police corruption, poor defense, and institutional racism.
Terri Been also spoke. She is the sister of Jeff Wood, who is on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties for a murder committed by someone else. Jeff never killed anyone. He was sitting in a car outside of a convenience store when someone else went inside and killed someone. Jeff did not know that the other person planned to rob or kill anyone, but Jeff was sentence to death because of the Texas Law of Parties. Terri successfully lobbied the Texas House of Representatives in 2009 to pass a bill to ban the execution of people convicted under the Law of Parties. The bill passed the House, but was killed in the Texas Senate after Governor Rick Perry threatened to veto it if it was approved.
Delia Perez Meyer also spoke. She has been fighting for years to prove the innocence of and to save the life of her brother Louis Castro Perez who is on death row in Texas. Delia is a Commissioner on the Austin Human Rights Commission. She is a member of the board of directors of Texas Moratorium Network. She also works closely with the Journey of Hope … from Violence to Healing, CEDP-Austin and many other anti-death penalty organizations.
Nick Been of Kids Against the Death Penalty also spoke. KADP is an organization formed initially by nephews of Jeff Wood, a person on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties even though he did not kill anyone. In February 2010, members of KADP traveled as invited speakers to Geneva, Switzerland for the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty.
Lawrence Foster, grandfather of Kenneth Foster, Jr also spoke. Kenneth’s death sentence under the Law of Parties was commuted by Rick Perry in 2007.
Minister Robert Muhammad also spoke.
Brit Schulte of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Denton chapter read a letter from Rob Will, who is on Texas death row.
“This is fast becoming one of the biggest anti-death penalty events in the country. I’ll be there“, said death row exoneree Ron Keine.
Each October since 2000, people from all walks of life and all parts of Texas, the U.S. and other countries have taken a day out of their year and gathered in Austin to raise their voices together and loudly express their opposition to the death penalty. The march is a coming together of activists, family members of people on death row, community leaders, exonerated prisoners and all those calling for repeal of the Texas death penalty.
The annual march is organized as a joint project 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.
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
Todd Willingham’s Friend Elizabeth Gilbert to Speak at 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty
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)
Texas Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado to Speak at Texas Fire Marshal’s Association Conference in Austin Oct 18-22; Maldonado Stands by Error-Ridden Fire Investigation Used to Convict Todd Willingham
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.
John Bradley Accused of Bias and Threatening Integrity of Forensic Investigation of Todd Willingham Case
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.