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Protesters voice concerns about death penalty
By Bobby Longoria
Daily Texan Staff
Bruno Mortan/The Daily Texan
Jane Chamberlain holds her homemade sign as exonerated prisoners talk about their experiences on death row during an anti-death penalty march held on Saturday afternoon.
Hundreds of signs adorned with crossed out nooses and photos of executed men were held by protestors on the steps of the state Capitol on Saturday as they called for the exoneration of executed Texas man Cameron Todd Willingham.
Anti-death penalty activists have gathered in Austin every October since 2000 to show support for the abolition of the death penalty. This year’s March to Abolish the Death Penalty marks the event’s return to Austin after two years in Houston.
The march was sponsored by more than 50 organizations and included appearances by three exonerated men and the families of current death row inmates.
“I’ve lost all my friends, I lost my family and I am angry,” said Curtis McCarthy, who spent 19 years on death row in Oklahoma before being exonerated in May 2007 by DNA evidence. “I know how the family of Willingham feels. I don’t know what to do about it … I am here. I don’t know what else to do.”
Willingham was a resident of Corsicana who was convicted of capital murder of his three daughters who were killed in a fire at their home Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham was accused of setting the fire and spent more than 10 years in the trial process claiming he was innocent.
After unsuccessful appeals, Willingham was executed Feb. 17, 2004. The incident has been given increased attention after several independent reviews of the arson investigation claim it based its conclusions on faulty reasoning.
Demonstrators also voiced their opposition to Gov. Rick Perry’s comments and actions this month regarding Willingham’s execution.
At a press conference after a Texas Association of Realtors luncheon two weeks ago, Perry called Willingham “a monster” and said that multiple testimonies and the fact that the court upheld the jury’s verdict proved that Willingham was guilty. Perry told the media to not be misled by anti-death penalty “propaganda.”
The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler to investigate Willingham’s case.
“The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators,” Beyler said in his August report. “A finding of arson could not be sustained.”
On Sept. 30, two days before the commission was set to meet and review Beyler’s report, Perry removed three members of the commission, including the chairman, who he replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. Bradley canceled the Oct. 2 meeting, which has yet to be rescheduled.
“If we had any of the number of experts that have come forth now and given testimony in this case, Todd Willingham would have never been convicted. He would have never been executed. He probably never would have even been tried,” said Walter Reaves, Willingham’s lawyer during the appeals process.
Reaves said he is seeking post-mortem exoneration of Willingham as well as a formal apology. He said that reports by arson experts indicating that Willingham did not set the fire were not given a fair consideration during the appeals process.
“[Lawmakers] need to fix the procedural problems with police and prosecutorial misconduct in this state before we even think about executing people,” said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel to The Innocence Project of Texas.
After an examination of Willingham’s case, the project believes he was unjustly put to death, Blackburn said.
Multiple families appeared at the event showing support for men currently on death row including Rodney Reed, who is accused of the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites.
“I am out here every chance I get and I am going to keep on doing it even after my brother comes home because the death penalty is wrong,” said Roderick Reed, Rodney Reed’s brother. “I got involved because of my brother, but I am going to stay with it until the end to see it is abolished.”