Claims of executed man’s innocence refocuses Texas death penalty debate

David Atwood / Andrew Rivas
David Atwood / Andrew Rivas


The possible innocence of an executed Texas man has renewed the debate on the death penalty in the state with the most executions in the United States.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 after being convicted of the murder of his three toddler daughters by setting his house on fire

Experts have questioned the arson investigation in the case that led to his conviction and eventual execution. Now, Willingham’s stepmother and cousin have asked a court to declare he was wrongfully convicted.

However, Willingham’s ex-wife Stacy Kuykendall has said that before his execution Willingham confessed to her that he killed their daughters “and watched while their tiny bodies burned.”

Texas has executed the most inmates in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court ended its moratorium on the punishment in 1976. Willingham’s family lawyers are asking that other convictions reliant on similar evidence be reopened.

Dave Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and author of the book “Detour to Death Row,” spoke to CNA about the case and the death penalty debate.

Willingham “may be innocent,” he said, noting that his coalition has not taken a definite position on the case. However, it is supporting the court inquiry and the investigation of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

The case should bolster efforts to abolish the death penalty in the U.S., Atwood believes.

“More and more people are opposing the death penalty in Texas. Death sentences and executions are both dropping.”

He attributed this drop to the prominence of cases of innocent people sent to death row, improved legal defense for the poor, the sentencing option of life without parole, and citizen education.

“Texas is the number one executing state in the nation with 436 executions to date,” Atwood said. “Texas politicians have always denied that an innocent person has ever been executed in the state. We know that this is not true.”

Atwood’s coalition aims to educate Texas citizens, particularly Catholics, about the death penalty with the hope that they will oppose it. The organization promotes the alternative punishment of life without parole. The coalition believes this alternative protects society from dangerous felons while upholding the sanctity of life.

Andrew Rivas, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, is also monitoring the Willingham case. He called Texas “ground zero” for the nationwide debate over the future of the death penalty.

“We’ve got a serious road to cross to get to that point where we can have a definitive dialogue on the death penalty,” he told CNA in an interview.

Rivas previously worked on the staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on criminal justice issues and the bishops’ campaign to end the death penalty. Drawing on this experience, he said that revisiting individual executions is “a very difficult proposition.”

“No prosecutor in the U.S. has ever admitted to making a mistake when executing somebody.”

He suggested that for the purposes of persuasion the better path for death penalty abolitionists is not to focus on individual cases but rather on the “inherent flaws in the system.”

Otherwise, he said, “almost every single time, it becomes about that person and case rather than the overall system.”

The Texas bishops have not taken a position on the Willingham case. Rivas described it as “a tough situation.” The relevant forensic evidence was “strongly disputed” but it was still difficult to arrive at the point of judging a person to be “definitively innocent,” he said.

Public sentiment in Texas still runs strongly in favor of capital punishment -- including among Catholics.

Rivas recalled working to prevent the passage of “Jessica’s Law,” in 2007. The law toughened penalties for child sexual abuse and authorized use of death penalty for certain sex crimes against children. Talking to legislators was “like talking to a brick wall,” he said. In the end, only a handful voted against it.

“Here in Texas, it’s not a partisan issue. Everybody needs education on this issue and needs to know what the Church teaches.

“Our teaching is that life is a precious gift from God. We’re made in God’s image,” Rivas explained. “No matter what we do, the dignity and beauty of this gift is never diminished. Our position is that life should always be protected, whenever possible.”

Rivas added that the Texas bishops’ efforts are focused on starting a dialogue to “help change people’s minds, even people who sit in our pews.”

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