Friday, May 05, 2006

Innocent man executed in Texas

Just came across this New York Times report from a couple of days ago:

Faulty evidence masquerading as science sent two men to death row for arson in Texas and led to the execution of one of them, a panel of private fire investigators concluded in a report released Tuesday in Austin.

The report, prepared for the Innocence Project, a legal clinic dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, was presented to a new state panel, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created by the Legislature last year to oversee the integrity of crime laboratories.

Barry C. Scheck, a co-director of the Innocence Project, said the report offered "important evidence of serious scientific negligence or misconduct in the investigations, reports and testimony of Texas state fire marshals" and called into question not just the two cases but also many others based on similar arson analyses.

The second defendant, by the way, was exonerated and pardoned after 17 years in prison, and awarded $430,000.

The strongest practical criticism of the death penalty -- that it's it's far too likely that an innocent will be executed -- usually draws the response of "name one innocent person who has been executed."

It's a cheap retort, because once someone is dead the investigation ends. Private individuals can keep trying to clear a dead person's name, but such quests are usually quixotic: lack of interest, lack of access and lack of professional investigators end up foiling the effort.

Now, thanks to very unusual circumstances, we have an example of a dead innocent. There's no reason to think they're the only one, but in any case that's one too many.

We need to ditch the death penalty except for extreme and overwhelmingly proven cases. And we need to do it now.

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