TX Doesn’t Even Want to Know If They’re Innocent

Justice to me would mean making sure you got the right man and that the evidence is all in line.

Not so for Texas prosecutors.

From buddy Radley Balko comes this:

A Texas appeals court has ordered a halt to a district court’s inquiry into whether Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for setting a 1992 fire that killed his three daughters, was innocent. The stay was sought by Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson. It’s merely the latest attempt by Texas officials (Thompson’s office prosecuted Willingham), including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, to stave off any formal inquiry into Willingham’s execution. Arson specialists now say Willingham was convicted based on flawed and outdated science, and there’s little forensic evidence to support the theory that the fire was set intentionally.

Meanwhile, Texas District Attorney Lynn Switzer told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that the state should be able to execute Hank Skinner without first turning over crime scene evidence for DNA testing that Skinner says will prove his innocence. The Court has already ruled that there’s no constitutional right to DNA testing in such cases. Skinner is arguing that the state is obligated to turn over the evidence under federal civil rights law. (I previously wrote about Skinner’s case here and here.)

The striking thing about both cases is that Texas government officials are staking out a position of ignorance. That is, they don’t want to know if either man is innocent. That’s not how they’d phrase it, of course. But in the Willingham case they’re thwarting efforts merely to investigate the possibility that Wilingham might have been innocent. In the Skinner case they’re fighting a DNA test—which Skinner’s attorneys have offered to pay for themselves—that if prosecutors are correct would undeniably establish Skinner’s guilt. But there’s a chance it could implicate someone else, or complicate their case against Skinner. So they’d rather not test.

Whether you’re for the death penalty or not, surely you’d want to make sure, right?


  1. Tim R. says:

    Two things come to mind, both contradict each other as it relates to our system of justice.

    Scalia: “Innocence does not overturn a conviction.”

    Benjamin Franklin: “It is better that a thousand guilty men go free than one innocent should suffer.”

    Don’t know about you, but I prefer to err on the side of Franklin than to err on the side of Scalia.

  2. Craig T says:

    @Tim R
    While Franklin’s sentiment sounds very noble, it is not a great working idea. If one innocent man is locked up that is a tragedy for that 1 man and his family. If 1000 criminals go free it is a tradgedy for their 1000′s of past and future victims and their families.

  3. CJ says:

    Don’t know about the Skinner case, but with Willingham the issue is that the presiding judge has refused to recuse himself from the case. This is the same judge who won some prize that was given out by one of the anti-death penalty groups. Needless to say, prosecutors are a bit worried that the judge might be biased in his rulings.
    I’m all for “making sure” in death penalty cases, but I’m also for fairness in the review process. Just find another judge that has a more neutral approach on this case and then go forward. How hard can that be?

  4. FrankR says:

    I believe that every effort should be made to prove beyond a “reasonable” doubt, that a person is guilty. That means using any technology available and, making sure that the evidence, witness confessions and all, is impeccable.

    That said, imagine that we pass a law that says a person convicted of first degree murder must be locked away for life with no chance for parole. None. His world for the remainder of his life will be his cell and the environs of the prison. Will this satisfy the no death penalty folks. Is this more humane? Is life, no matter the quality, preferable to death in all cases? Is the minute possibility that an innocent man might be killed reason enough for such a sentence?

    Just asking the question.

  5. keith johnson says:

    Willingham, was, in my opinion, innocent, Skinner not so much.
    I used to be 100% pro death penalty, but as I get older and see how incompetent government is at all levels, I don’t trust government to get the DP right.
    Lock ‘em up and forget about ‘em.

  6. Keith, I’m close to the same. It was the DNA rape exonerations that pushed me over the line.

    It’s hard, because every once in a while along comes a killer who is so heinous that you want him to ride the steel gurney.

  7. Tim R. says:

    @Crait T.: When you consider that more than half of the U.S. prison population is comprised of drug offenders (which are themselves mostly comprised of victimless crimes) then I think Ben Franklin’s maxim is spot on.

    You can’t ignore the philosophy behind the U.S. legal system because it’s inconvenient. That’s been the problem all along. Too many adopting the punitive approach and then a private company seeing it as a way to profit.

  8. Tom says:

    But proving that Gov. Perry executed an innocent man would distract from his campaign platform of distracting voters from the real issues surrounding his time in office and quest to be governor for life.