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September 7, 2009

The death penalty

I absolutely had to share this link to a fascinating New Yorker article I read this weekend.  I have been opposed to the death penalty for as long as I can remember, long before I ever met a prisoner.  I don’t believe that it protects the sanctity of life, but rather undermines it.  My opinion was certainly strengthened by seeing firsthand the racism within the criminal justice system–this has always been a key argument for death penalty opponents, that there is an unacceptable racial disparity in the death sentence.

The interesting thing about this article by David Grann is that it is not really a polemic about the death penalty: rather, it’s one part the story of an unlikely friendship between a death row inmate and a writer/teacher; one part exploration of the science (or non-science) of arson investigation; and one part reflection on the ethics of a system which took the life of an innocent person.  It’s a bit lengthy and obviously sad (three children have died at the outset), but there is a tragic beauty in there that really moved me.

If you give it a read, let me know what you think (I thought it was amazing, but sometimes feel like I lose track of how interesting other people will find these same topics).



  1. That is one intense article! I, too, am very against the death penalty and found this article very moving. Thanks for sharing it!

    Comment by Mary Arnett — September 8, 2009 @ 4:16 am

  2. Thanks for sharing this story. I too am against the death penalty for several reasons, but mostly because I don’t think the decision on who should live and who should die should be left to imperfect subjective beings. The U.S. legal system does not wrongly prosecute individuals all of the time, but this article does show that when there are errors, that are often the result of human error, they are often overlooked in order to achieve some sense of perceived justice.

    Comment by Kirsten — September 8, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  3. I usually don’t like “smart” stuff, but I’ll read this one for you. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done.

    Comment by Nikki — September 8, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

  4. Besides being a stimulating and engaging article, I have a few other thoughts. The justice system is indeed responsible for the protection and safety of the citizens in the community where it holds jurisdiction. The question in death penalty cases is not cut and dry. On the one hand, can the system potentially murder an innocent individual? On the other hand, can a person guilty of heinous crimes be released early because they were not sentenced to death or life without parole and commit the crime again? There are also those who believe in an ultimate crime and an ultimate sentence as a psychological deterent. We have recently seen the effects of allowing a convicted sex offender out early–he then held a woman for 18 years in his back yard. Then there is also the Judeo-Christian belief that the death penalty is sanctioned.

    However, the law, as this story reveals, often favors the rich. Too often, a group of people can be convinced of someone’s innocence or guilt based on group dymanics and hearsay evidence making it impossible to convince them otherwise. I have seen this happen in cases less extreme with every day human interactions.

    I hope that the death penalty can be reviewed especially in Texas. I want the little guy to have a chance. Thanks for writing. I enjoyed reading.

    Comment by Audrey — September 9, 2009 @ 2:39 am

    • What a tragic story! And I can’t believe what happens to Gilbert! What a great read, though. I couldn’t stop. Thanks for posting.

      Comment by Jenn — September 9, 2009 @ 3:24 am

    • Audrey, I can understand many reasons why some people support the death penalty, so many of which you’ve outlined here. Yet for me, it actually is cut and dry. I favor abolishing the death penalty entirely, and instead using life without the possibility of parole as the most severe punishment our society can inflict. I don’t believe that as fallible humans, working through an incredibly fallible system, we should ever enact a punishment that is irrevocable.

      The idea of the death penalty as deterrent is definitely a contentious issue, but I have been unconvinced by the studies claiming the death penalty deters these crimes. And I also think there is good evidence that life without parole is less costly than death row because of the extensive legal processes that death penalty cases create.

      But if I don’t get what I want, a death-penalty free country, then I agree with you that the system needs to be reformed such that in these death penalty cases, a defendant gets better representation than an over-worked, too-many-cases-assigned public defender.

      Comment by llcall — September 10, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

  5. I enjoy this site, it is worth me coming back

    Comment by Kelli Garner — October 1, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  6. 1) “Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
    “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann–the-death-penalty.aspx

    This was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall’s report, below:

    2) EXCLUSIVE: City report on arson probe:
    State panel asks for city response in Willingham case

    3) No Doubts

    For a collection of articles, go to:

    Corsicana Daily Sun, The Willingham Files

    OTHER REPORTS: There is the potential for, at least, 3 more, official, reports on this case: the Texas Fire Marshall’s office, which will give an official and requested reply, the Corsicana Police Dept. and Navarro County District Attorney’s office, both of which, I speculate, may only contribute to the TFM report, but could issue their own reports.

    There is an official “report” which, it appears, few have paid attention to – the trial transcript.

    I find that rather important because, at least five persons, who were involved with the trial, the prosecutor, defense attorney, two surviving fire investigators and a juror have all voiced support for the verdict, still, in the light of the criticism of the arson forensics.

    One of those original fire investigators is, now, an active certified arson expert.

    Comment by Dudley Sharp — October 8, 2009 @ 6:23 am

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