The internets are abuzz with talk about David Grann's feature story in the September 7 edition of The New Yorker. If you read one story this year, this one has to be it. It is devastating. Devastating to the point that, no exaggeration, I felt like I was sick to my stomach and about to cry when I finished it.
In the story, Grann looks at Cameron Todd Willingham, a man convicted and executed for the murder of his three daughters by arson. The story walks through witnesses' accounts of the fire, through the police's investigation, through Willingham's trial, through his conviction, through his time on Death Row, through his execution. And the story talks about how, right before his execution, evidence was presented to the appeals board and to Governor Rick Perry that showed that Willingham was innocent of his crime, evidence that was ignored so that the execution could be carried out.
I wrote briefly back in March about the death penalty in light of a bill to repeal it in Maryland and the book An Innocent Man, by John Grisham. The book, non-fiction, looked at the trial, conviction, appeal, and eventual exoneration, of a Death Row inmate. After reading it, I became thoroughly against the death penalty. Even though I have seen the statistics that a death sentence costs more to the state than a life one (primarily because of the long appeals process) and that the death penalty is not a successful deterrent, I have always been for the death penalty in theory. How do you not kill someone like Timothy McVeigh? However, realizing that there are a number of Death Row inmates that have been cleared of charges, I adapted my beliefs. You just can't execute people if there's even the slightest chance that one of those people is innocent. You can't be 90% sure, you can't be 99.999999999% sure, you have to be 100% sure that the person is guilty. Can you ever be 100% sure?
But even with this, the inmate in An Innocent Man was cleared of the charges. Justice was served, no matter how long it took. But not for Cameron Todd Willingham. Evidence was presented to the appeals board and to Governor Rick Perry that Willingham was innocent. Willingham was still executed. Texas executed an innocent man. Texas murdered an innocent man.
Because, if you kill someone who did not deserve to be killed, what else could you call it? A mistake? An error? An oversight? A man who should not have been killed was killed. Texas murdered Cameron Todd Willingham. We can be for the death penalty in theory, but with the knowledge that an innocent man was executed, how can anyone be for it in practice? How can anyone sanction murder?