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Opening Arguments

Dead wrong

This is the best argument against the death penalty, stemming from the one thing people on all sides of the debate should be concerned about:

CORSICANA, Tex. — For more than 20 years, the prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of murdering his three young daughters has insisted that the authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of the jailhouse informer who told jurors that Willingham confessed the crime to him.

Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.

And it's a conservative argument, or at least a libertarian one: Can a government we sometimes don't trust to pave the streets be allowed to have the awesome power of life and death? Especially since (as this case illustrates), the criminal justice system is staffed by ordinary humans who are capable not only of making mistakes but also of abusing their power. If there were ever a case for capital punishment reform, it is that no one should be put to death based on the testimony of someone who says the accused confessed.

And there is the old argument that "even one mistaken execution is too many." I think that argument will probably be made more often rather than less as DNA testing makes it less and less likely there will be a mistake. DNA is clearing up old cases by freeing wrongly convicted prisoenrs even as it makes guilt obvious in new cases.