The case of Cameron Todd Willingham was one of the most controversial criminal justice cases handled in Texas. In 2004, the man was charged with the murder of his three young children by arson. In Death by Fire, the PBS crew provides an analysis of the case, with the focus on the ambiguous interpretation of evidence that might prove that Willingham was, in fact, innocent. The current case raises important questions about the practical and moral aspects of the death penalty as a form of criminal punishment. This essay advocates against the death penalty and lifelong imprisonment as it reduces the chances of making faulty judgments that lead to fatal mistakes.
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First and foremost, a cruel and unusual punishment, the death penalty violates the guarantees of proper law execution grounded in the US constitution. The death penalty is often applied unfairly, hurting innocent people who do not have enough resources to protect themselves in court. The case of Todd Willingham proves this point: during the next five years after his execution, the country’s top fire investigators had determined that it was not him who started the fire. Not only is his death a tragedy and an irreparable loss for his family but also a dangerous precedent that shows the public their vulnerability and defenselessness.
Aside from that, the death penalty does not leave any space for making amendments and correcting mistakes. On several occasions, individuals sentenced to death or waiting on death row for many years were able to prove their innocence with the help of attorneys and independent investigators. Death by Fire demonstrates that Willingham has never been given such a chance. Instead, the criminal justice system of Texas blindly trusted forensic analysis that used methods that even back then were questionable and needed reconsideration. Therefore, if the death penalty is abolished, the innocently convicted will have time to stand up for themselves and rectify their cases.
There are many more arguments against the death penalty and as many – for it. Despite their theoretical rationality, they do not quite agree with the reality of the criminal justice system in the US, and especially in the state of Texas. Texas is infamous for its incarceration rates: 891 per 100,000 are in jail (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities). The state of Texas locks up and executes far more people than many other wealthy democracies. It is embroiled in the debate of the death penalty that does not seem to cease anytime soon. The debate is reflective of the polarization of the American society that radicalizes both ends of the political spectrum.
Death by Fire reveals discriminatory charging practices of Texas prosecutors that disrupt the societal order and render Texas residents powerless and defenseless in the face of the law. The documentary offered for analysis only grounded me in my belief that the death penalty is a product and a reinforcer of a faulty and corrupt system. It made me wonder what factors contribute to the toxic dynamics within the criminal justice system: it could be ignorance, malice, denial, or all of them together. The outcome of Willingham’s trial was a gross miscarriage of justice that at best, will help to expose the profound systemic problems and at worst, remain a mistake downplayed and dismissed by the public.
PBS. Death by Fire. 2010, Web.