No Shelter for the Powerful: Death Penalty, Torture, and Willingham
Everyone is, and should be, talking about a recent New Yorker article by David Grann documenting collapse of the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, accused of murdering his own children. Unfortunately, unlike many of the people spared death row after being exonerated by DNA evidence, it’s now far too late for Willingham: he received a lethal injection almost 6 years ago now.
It’s one thing to accept that having the death penalty might risk the occasional execution of an innocent person. But if Willingham is indeed found to be innocent (or at least that the basis of his indictment premised on phony forensics and false
testimony) it won’t simply be a case where a careful system tragically got one wrong, and that it should maybe think about some additional safeguards. It will instead be a case in which outright negligence and sheer disinterest in the cause of justice at nearly every level of the Texas justice system all conspired to bring about a predictable result: the legally endorsed murder of a human being.
In a perfectly just world, the members of Texas’ parole board and the state’s governor himself (Rick Perry) would face charges of, at a bare minimum, criminally negligent homicide. Any private citizen in an analogous situation, given power over life or death and then acting with such sheer indifference to that duty, would face that sort of consequence.
But, of course, we instead live in a world where the powerful and well-connected are now openly expressing outrage at the very idea of ever being subjected to such oversight or remonstration. Oversight, investigation, justice: they claim such things would make them too scared to do what needs to be done, whenever they deem it necessary: torture, murder, and death warrants signed without even a glance at astounding circumstances that demand at least a sincere consideration of clemency.
And it’s high time that we declared such evasions unacceptable. We have a legal system whose central purpose is to make people conscious of the consequences of their actions: to make sure that even when they care nothing for their victims, they at least fear for their own skins.
Texan officials found it extremely easy not to empathize with Willingham and thus ignore their duty to carefully reconsider his guilt. All they needed to do was to imagine, in turn, that he himself had acted without any empathy towards his victims.
But the law exists condemn to both. And if Willingham was in fact innocent it’s doubly abhorrent that he will be the only one to pay a price.