Executing the Innocent

The grim business of executing criminals has long been haunted by the specter of killing someone innocent. Common sense and the fact that a number of people on death row have been exonerated suggests that it’s happened, but no specific case has ever been widely acknowledged. Now it looks like David Grann, writing for The New Yorker, has our man Cameron Todd Willingham accused by Texas of setting a fire that led to the deaths of three children. The case, as Grann argues, is a mess. It’s founded on forensic evidence that’s not backed up by any real science, a mentally unstable semi-repentant jailhouse snitch, and some badly flawed eyewitness testimony.

You should read the story for yourself. The tragedy inherent in executing an innocent man is pretty clear. But it’s sobering to note that these death penalty cases are more heavily litigated than other kinds of charges that might lead to “only” ten or fifteen years behind bars. Given the staggeringly high number of people in prison in the United States, it stands to reason that we have thousands of innocent people behind bars. Part of the problem is simply that no system is foolproof. But part of the problem is a mentality among law enforcement and prosecutors that convicting the innocent is a workable second-best alternative to convicting the guilty. This leads to enormous and irrational resistance to ever rethinking “successful” prosecutions.