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More questionable arson convictions

The Observer has published the second of its stories on questionable arson convictions (the first, from April, is here). It’s a compelling series, and really gives a good picture of why these two cases should not have resulted in charges, much less prison sentences. Reading it, and reading some of the blogging that Grits has done on the topic, has been an eye-opener, the kind of thing that makes me hope it gets more of a pop-culture treatment – you could make for an awesome “CSI” or “Law and Order” episode out of this, and I can think of a half-dozen or so crime-fiction writers who could do even more. Maybe if that happens, it might penetrate the public consciousness in the way that DNA exonerations have started to do.

One of the things that the article notes is that the Texas Forensic Science Commission is on the verge of releasing its report on Cameron Willingham, who may go down in Texas history as the first officially-declared innocent person to have been executed. Willingham, whose case is recounted in great detail here, was convicted and ultimately put to death in 2004 for the 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. Advances in scientific knowledge of how fires get started and spread showed just how bogus the state’s case was against him. Ironically, that report will be released shortly after the 200th execution of Governor Perry’s career. Overzealous implementation may help build public support for doing away with the death penalty in this state, but I think it’ll take a case of an actually innocent executed inmate to truly swing the tide. Grits has more.

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