In the course of a week earlier this month, two news stories highlighted the continuing problems with the way in which people are sent to death row in this country.
In Virginia, Earl Washington Jr. won $2.28 million from the estate of the police officer whom Washington lawyers claimed help fabricate a false confession that put Washington on death row.
Washington spent 18 years on death row for rape and murder. He was pardoned in 2000 after new DNA testing implicated a convicted rapist in the murder.
There’s just one problem — not only did Washington confess to the murder, but his confession contained details about the murder that only the murdered and the police knew. Since DNA testing indicated that Washington wasn’t the murderer, the obvious conclusion is that the details in Washington’s confession came from Detective Curtis Reese Wilmore, who interrogated Washington and obtained his confession.
Washington is mildly retarded and would have been highly susceptible to manipulation and feeding of details about the murder by police.
Meanwhile, the Innocence Project released an extremely disturbing picture of death row convictions of arson in Texas. The report looked at the case of two men who were sentenced to death as a result of arson convictions — Cameron Willingham and Ernest Willis.
In both cases, the Innocence Project found that testimony by arson “experts” at trial was riddled with errors. At Willis’ trial, a prosecution expert actually testified that fires were rarely caused accidentally by cigarettes, even though that is the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States.
In both Willingham and Willis’ trial, the Innocence Project claims, arson experts testified that a number of indicators led to the conclusion that the fire had to be arson, but the experts in each case grossly misinterpreted those indicators.
Willis spent almost 17 years on death row before he was pardoned in 2004. Willingham was executed in 2004.
The scariest part of the Innocence Project’s report is the laughable qualifications to be an arson “expert” in Texas. According to the New York Times,
Many arson investigators were self-taught and “inept,” the report said, adding: “There is no crime other than homicide by arson for which a person can be sent to death row based on the unsupported opinion of someone who received all his training ‘on the job.'”
Unbelievable, but sadly fairly routine. CSI is the fiction; Barney Fife is too often the reality.
Faulty testimony sent 2 to death row, panel finds. Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times, May 3, 2006.
Jury: Investigator must pay ex-death row inmate. Associated Press, May 5, 2006.
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