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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

As Sammantha Allen Heads for Death Row, Will Arizona Execute a Woman Again?

Sammantha Allen, ARIZONA
Sammantha Allen
The convicted murderer inadvertently became one of Arizona's capital punishment pioneers when she was hung 87 years ago for killing a Tucson rancher.

On February 21, 1930, she approached the gallows and remained silent and stoic before her hanging. But then something went awry. The rope sliced Dugan's neck and she was decapitated.

As Pinal County Historical Society President Lynn Smith likes to tell it, "Her head popped off when she was hanged and it went across the room and scared all the witnesses."

Sixty people saw the botched and bloody hanging that would cause the state Legislature to switch to gas chamber executions, according to an Arizona Daily Star report from back then.

"It was before sunrise and everybody ran out into the dark and her body went down into the basement," Smith said.

Smith oversees a collection of over 20 nooses used to carry out early executions at the Arizona State Prison at the Pinal County Historical Society and Museum.

Dugan's is one of them. Smith says people have mixed reactions when they hear this story.

"They think it’s gory, but if you’re a murderer, people don’t feel too bad for you," Smith said. "All the people we have hanged supposedly were murderers."

Unlike states like Georgia and Texas, where women have been executed within the last five years, Arizona hasn't executed a woman since Dugan.

But that all could change. Sammantha Allen joined two other Arizona women on death row in the state this week when she was sentenced for the 2011 murder of her younger cousin, Ame Deal. Deal suffocated to death after Allen locked Deal in a padlocked plastic storage box overnight after the 10-year-old took a Popsicle from a freezer without getting permission.

But whether Allen will actually face lethal injection, Arizona's current method of choice for executing inmates, is a different story, according to Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

"The public is very reluctant to see women executed," Dunham said. "There have only been 16 women executed in the modern history of the U.S. death penalty. There are only 55 women currently on death row, and it is rare that executions of women are actually carried out."

Everybody has the right to appeal to death sentences, and, whether the inmate in question is male or female, Dunham says the "single most likely outcome" of a capital punishment case is that the conviction or death sentence will be overturned.

The appeals process can take 20 years or more, and, at that rate, it could be more than 100 years after Dugan's death before Allen faces execution. Dunham said the memories of Dugan's traumatic and treacherous history could have an unquantifiable impact on whether the state of Arizona would execute another woman.

As of October 2016, Arizona had 125 death row inmates, according to DPIC. Only three of those, now including Allen, are women. Dunham says women are not only statistically less likely to commit crimes that would warrant the death penalty, juries are also less likely to sentence women to death row.

"Juries are more likely to believe females are less likely to be dangerous in a prison setting," Dunham said. "They (juries) are more likely to spare a woman’s life than a man’s life on the basis of evidence that she was severely abused as a child or was involved in an abusive relationship."

But Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender for the district of Arizona Capital Habeas Unit, says he believes the three women up for death row in Arizona should be worried.

"If the cases reach the end of the legal process, the state would push for the death penalty," Baich said. "In Maricopa County especially, the prosecutor has been very aggressive in ... seeking the death penalty for crimes committed by women where the death penalty is a possibility. ... My sense is that Arizona would likely pursue the execution."

In other words, Dugan's death might have frightened the witnesses in 1930, but it may not be enough to scare Arizona prosecutors today.

Source: Phoenix News Times, Molly Longman, August 11, 2017


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