KELLY: Two innocent prisoners: one killed, one freed

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Jack KellyA Texas man was executed in 2004 for a crime he did not commit.

Recent analysis of arson evidence all but exonerates Cameron Todd Willingham, who was accused, convicted and killed for the alleged 1991 murder of his three children.

Willingham’s house caught on fire while he was asleep. He managed to escape, but could not hear or find his three toddler daughters before flames engulfed the home.

A jury concluded Willingham set the house on fire, and he was put on death row.

But extensive appeals, after-the-fact studies and testimony confirm his innocence, wrote investigative reporter David Grann in last week’s New Yorker.

Willingham spent 12 years on death row — 12 years anguishing over the grisly death of his three children, 12 years fuming over the guilty verdict, 12 years hoping for a miracle.

He repeatedly denied prosecutors’ offers to plead guilty in return for life in prison, indicative of how strongly he felt about his wrongful conviction.

In his final words before execution, he maintained his innocence.

“The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do,” he said.

Overwhelming evidence that Willingham did not commit the crime was compiled and verified by the Innocence Project, an organization that represents or assists prisoners seeking exoneration.

Through its efforts, there have been 242 post-conviction exonerations in the United States.

Seventeen of the 242 had served time on death row.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, called the New Yorker report the nation’s strongest case on record that an innocent man was executed.

“The Innocence Project has found that forensic science problems were a factor in 50 percent of all wrongful convictions that were later overturned with DNA testing,” Scheck said.

And forensic science problems, like outdated methods of arson, a drawn-out appeals process and shabby eyewitness testimony — led to Willingham’s wrongful death.

In January, a Milwaukee man serving a life term for murder was freed from prison after 13 years. Although DNA testing excluded him as a suspect in 2002, Chaunte Ott remained behind bars five more years.

Again: an innocent man was held captive, despite evidence proving otherwise. Ott has filed a lawsuit accusing investigators of wrongful imprisonment.

However, overturning a sentence of a convicted man or woman doesn’t fix anything.

On paper, they’re free. And the court ultimately got the decision correct.

But you can’t undo the years served in prison, the time spent on death row, the emotional pain, and the irreversible damage to their reputation.

In 2000, former Illinois governor George Ryan suspended the death penalty in his state after 13 people on death row were exonerated.

This was a step in the right direction.

With a legal system as large and cumbersome as ours, mistakes are inevitable.

What should be the goal, then, is to limit those mistakes to ones with the least harmful ramifications. Putting an innocent man to death has to be the worst possible outcome of our judicial system.

So, cases involving the death penalty must be handled with extraordinary caution.

The death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous of offenders, and only when the evidence is so overwhelming and damning that no person in their right mind would want to challenge it.

Perhaps there could be a federal office whose function is to review death row cases, scouring them for errors in the investigation, and giving the final stamp of approval that capital punishment be carried out.

Whatever the next step is, something must be done. There cannot be another case like Willingham’s.

“It’s not enough to feel bad that an innocent man was executed,” Scheck said. “We must use this moment to do better.”

For now, what we can do is listen to what Willingham told his parents before he was executed and apply it to similar cases: “Please don’t ever stop fighting to vindicate me.”

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