A common argument from the anti-capital punishment-camp is that if even one innocent individual is executed, then the entire system is flawed. Thus far, there have been no documented cases of an innocent individual being killed via a state’s criminal process, although there are several cases in which an individual is speculated to have been innocent of his or her crimes.
One such individual is Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 for setting his house on fire and murdering his three daughters. The incident took place in 1991 in Corsicana, Tex.
Although the case has been closed for over ten years, new information regarding the evidence used to convict Willingham has emerged. According to the New York Times, the attorneys hired by Willingham’s family claim that a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb who testified against Willingham did so to receive a reduced prison sentence. Webb’s claim that Willingham had admitted his guilt regarding the crime was used as a key piece of evidence in Willingham’s conviction and sentencing.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that helps reopen cases of individuals whom they believe to have been wrongly imprisoned — typically using new, specific scientific investigation methods such as DNA testing — has been working to exonerate Willingham. In this case, the organization found evidence in the form of a note in a D.A. file folder claiming Webb’s sentence would be reduced from robbery in the first degree to robbery in the second degree “based on coop in Willingham.” The note was reportedly undated.
With the help of The Innocence Project, those working towards Willingham's exoneration have already discredited the other key piece of evidence used in the conviction: the arson report. Nine experts claimed that the fire marshals used in Willingham's initial trial used "many critical errors," the New York Times reports. Many have agreed that the fire appeared to be accidental, rather than committed as an act of arson.
Although Willingham’s family members are excited that the case is being reopened, Willingham’s cousin Patricia Cox said they do not plan to file charges for any number of damages.
“We’re not asking compensation. We’re asking justice,” Cox said.
The case is expected to proceed using the new evidence, and its ruling should have broad implications on the divisive capital punishment argument.