One of the main arguments in support of the death penalty is that with all of the litigation and the many years of waiting on death row, it would be impossible to execute an innocent person. Given that a number of prisoners on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence, there may indeed have been some innocent people killed (since DNA evidence is not present in every crime, despite what we see on CSI). Until now, however, there has never been one case that we can say with a good amount of certainty that the man was probably innocent. From the New Yorker’s David Grann comes the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for starting a fire that killed his three children. Though the evidence seemed airtight at the time of the trial, there are some serious holes. The arson experts who studied the house had no real scientific training. There was never any motive for the murders. The prosecution had convinced the jury that a Led Zepplin poster and a skull tattoo were evidence of cult-like actions. Nevertheless, Willingham was executed. In recent years, Texas has been reviewing the evidence and may state next year that they believe he was innocent. If that happens, it will be a major landmark in our national debate over the death penalty.
This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.