Injustice, Texas Style

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Restoring Cameron Willingham's reputation.

"Why would you abolish the death penalty when a majority of the voters support it?" Republican Tom Foley asked Democrat Dan Malloy in a robust debate last week to help determine which man should be Connecticut's next governor. "Why would you do that? It's arrogant."

Foley's claim that it's "arrogant" for officeholders to substitute their judgment for the wishes of the majority would, taken to its logical conclusion, mean that government could be run by a computer processing polls. Nice platform. Yet even a pandering argument can be revealing. Capital punishment may feel like abortion or gun control--a tired debate where minds can't be changed. But there's a discussion worth having about the hypocritical conservative attitude toward the life-and-death power of the state.

The government, GOP politicians suggest, can't run a three-car funeral. It's unaccountable, intrusive, and has too much power to revoke people's rights. But when it comes to the ultimate right--life--these same conservatives almost invariably view the government's actions as flawless and not subject to review even if injustice surfaces. Who's arrogant now?

In Connecticut, Foley is hoping to ride the death penalty to victory because of one case--the terrifying home invasion that led to the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters (her husband survived). Suddenly, there's talk of the first execution in Connecticut in 50 years. The defense's case for suspect Steven Hayes was so weak that it relied not on establishing a shred of doubt, but on showing that police should have entered the house earlier to prevent Hayes and another assailant from finishing off their victims by setting the house on fire.

And yet, just when you start thinking the death penalty isn't such a bad idea after all, another house-fire murder case comes back into view, this one in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murder in 1992 after testimony that the house fire that killed his three young daughters (his wife was elsewhere) had been arson. But the conviction was based on junk science claiming evidence of accelerants where none existed. In the years since, nearly a dozen top fire inspectors have ruled out arson. A jailhouse snitch essentially recanted his testimony. …