Friday, August 19, 2011

Dead wrong: Rick Perry and the death penalty

Yesterday I covered some basics as to how the Catholic Church views the death penalty. Below that post a reader commented: "Unaddressed in this post, but hopefully to be addressed in your follow up is the duty of a non-catholic politician to live up to the highly evolved Catholic position on the death penalty and a Catholic citizen's duty to hold them to such a position."

I'm aware that Catholic citizens don't appear to feel they have much of a duty at all to hold non-Catholic, or even Catholic, politicians to positions of morality as voiced by the Church. Take, for instance, our apparent willingness to overlook a politician's "exceptions" on abortion, his support for ESCR, or the universal support among American politicians for public funding of birth control via programs like Medicaid (and now in all health insurance plans as well). There seems to be little limit to what we can overlook when the politician in question is one of "our guys," and that goes for Catholic Republicans and Democrats alike.

Nevertheless, I think that examining Rick Perry's record on the death penalty is a helpful look at his positions and even, to a certain extent, his character. It may not make some Catholics any less inclined to vote for him, but I would think that addressing these sorts of questions now, while we are still in early-primary days and the field of Republican hopefuls is quite crowded, might be a beneficial thing to do.

Let's begin with a look at some factual information:

In tough-on-crime Texas, supporting the death penalty is practically a political prerequisite, and Gov. Rick Perry has nailed that qualification, overseeing the executions of 230 prisoners, more than any other modern governor of any state.

“He certainly would stand out among other governors,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “But that’s just sort of a given in Texas.” [...]

During his 10-year tenure, Perry has overseen nearly half of the 470 executions in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974. In that time, public opinion about the death penalty has evolved as DNA evidence and other modern forensic science developments have cleared many wrongfully convicted inmates across the country. More than 130 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated since 1973 — including 12 in Texas — according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A 2010 Gallup News poll found that public approval of the death penalty had dropped from an all-time high of 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2009.

Perhaps more troubling than the number of executions that have taken place on Governor Perry's watch is this fact: while other governors or officials of other states grant stays of execution or clemency fairly often, Governor Perry has only done so about thirty times--and 28 of those cases involved an order by the U.S. Supreme Court:

HOUSTON - In nearly nine years as Texas governor, Rick Perry has only once delayed an execution and has never spared a life based on a claim of innocence, according to a Chronicle review of public records, clemency statistics and information from the governor's office.

During that same period, officials in other death penalty states granted clemency for humanitarian reasons at least 200 times - 171 based on questions of innocence in Illinois alone.

Texas has executed 200 convicts under Perry's watch, but he has spared just one condemned man's life in a case in which he wasn't compelled to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that case, the inmate Perry saved in 2007 wasn't a killer, but the admitted driver of a getaway car, condemned alongside the triggerman in a joint trial under Texas' tough "law of parties."

One inmate sent to his death was paranoid schizophrenic Kelsey Patterson; Governor Perry ignored the recommendation of the Texas parole board for clemency, along with appeals by international groups for mercy based on the man's history of mental illness and apparent lack of awareness that he was even going to be executed.

But the execution of Kelsey Patterson is not the most troubling execution which took place under Rick Perry's governorship. That dubious honor belongs to the late Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed for the arson-murders of his three young children: except that there appears to be little doubt today that the fire was only a tragic accident, that the Willingham children were not murdered at all, and that Texas did, indeed, execute an innocent man:

And yet, just when you start thinking the death penalty isn’t such a bad idea after all, another house-fire murder case comes back into view, this one in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murder in 1992 after testimony that the house fire that killed his three young daughters (his wife was elsewhere) had been arson. But the conviction was based on junk science claiming evidence of accelerants where none existed. In the years since, nearly a dozen top fire inspectors have ruled out arson. A jailhouse snitch essentially recanted his testimony.

No matter. Willingham, the subject of a New Yorker piece last year, was executed in 2004. Afterward, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now clinging to a lead in the polls over former Houston mayor Bill White, seemingly did everything he could to cover up evidence clearing Willingham. Instead of allowing an investigation to proceed, Perry last year fired members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who exposed the “evidence” used to convict him. (Perry felt the commission was biased.)

Biased in favor of the truth, perhaps? Some members of Mr. Willingham's family probably think so--at least, they are trying to have Mr. Willingham posthumously exonerated.

At this point, some might object: sure, it looks now as though Mr. Willingham was innocent--but could Governor Perry have possibly known? The answer is yes: see here:

Two of Texas' highest-profile death penalty recent cases continue to shadow Perry. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for an arson that killed his three daughters, has roiled the criminal justice community in Texas and nationwide. Since Willingham's execution, public reports have revealed that Perry’s office was aware that serious scientific questions had been raised about evidence used to convict Willingham. Perry has dismissed the reports of scientists who concluded Willingham was not responsible for the blaze and has called him a guilty “monster.” The Texas Forensic Science Commission continues to investigate the science used in the Willingham case, and the Innocence Project continues its fight to prove that Texas killed an innocent man.

...and here:

AUSTIN - The Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers LLC are suing Gov. Rick Perry in an effort to force the release of a clemency report Perry received before denying a stay of execution to Cameron Todd Willingham.

The report is a summary and status of the case against Willingham and was given to Perry at 11:30 a.m. on the day of Willingham's execution, in 2004, in the fire deaths of his three daughters. Anti-death penalty advocates say modern fire forensics show that the blaze cannot be proven as arson.

Perry's office has refused to release the report, claiming it is a privileged document. It was used by Perry in the process of deciding whether to give Willingham a 30-day stay of execution. [...]

Willingham was put to death shortly after 6 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2004, just 88 minutes after the governor's office received an expert's report that the fire that killed Willingham's children could not be positively attributed to arson. It is unknown whether the report by Perry's general counsel included any mention of the arson controversy in the Willingham case.

If a report from one of the most noted experts in the field comes in just 88 minutes before a man's execution stating that modern scientific methods do not agree with the original fire investigator's conclusion that the fire which killed the Willingham children was arson, you would think that any reasonable governor would approve a thirty-day stay of execution simply to allow the Death Row inmate's lawyers to have a look at the document. In the case of Governor Perry and Cameron Todd Willingham, however, you would be wrong. Dead wrong.

As if that wasn't worrying enough, take a look at how these sorts of things are viewed by supporters of Governor Perry:
Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man — Cameron Todd Willingham — and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.” [Emphasis added: E.M.]
No: it takes something ranging between egregious negligence and outright evil to execute an innocent man. At the very least, it takes someone with major character flaws. But there's no evidence that Governor Perry has ever taken seriously the scientific evidence that casts such grave doubt on Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction: Perry says Willingham was a monster, end of story. And that's troubling--because if the fire that swept through the Willingham home wasn't arson, then despite Mr. Willingham's admitted flaws, he was neither a monster nor a murderer.

Governor Perry's record on the death penalty, the sheer number of executions which have happened on his watch, his tendency not to grant humanitarian appeals, appeals for clemency, or the like, and his involvement in the Willingham execution are all causes for concern. It is one thing to expect a non-Catholic politician to have developed the same moral position concerning the death penalty as the Church teaches (though quite a lot of Americans are reaching that moral position regardless of religion, on their own). It is another altogether to pass over as nothing the instincts of a politician who is, quite frankly, dead wrong about the death penalty. Whatever Catholic voters do when the Republican nominee is actually decided, I think it is unseemly at this early stage of the election process to be enthusiastic champions of a man who falls so far short of the Catholic view of the death penalty.


Deirdre Mundy said...

Honestly, I don't think there's anyone in the race a Catholic Voter can be an ENTHUSIASTIC champion of.... If there's a choice left when the primary gets to Indiana (we have one of the last in the nation) I'll probably go Ron Paul.

Rebecca in ID said...

Reading about Mr. Willingham's case is making me ill...God rest his soul and have mercy on those who were responsible for his death.

Anonymous said...

Are there any Republicans who are against the death penalty?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Erin, you did an excellent job of presenting the significance of the Willingham case. Thank you.

One of the tragedies of the entire episode is that his wife, the children's mother, who supported him during the initial trial, became convinced from later reading the trial records that he was guilty, before all the review of the "expert" testimony became public. At the time he was murdered, she denied his request to be buried next to their children.

The case also highlights the dangers of reliance on "scientific experts." There is such a thing as science, and it can provide useful evidence. In this case, certain assumptions had been passed on for years among fire inspectors, that had a certain logic to them. (Extra dark burn marks in the shape of puddles were taken to indicate that a liquid accelerant had been deliberately squirted, for instance). It turns out there is no scientific basis to this at all, merely a convenient assumption, never challenged.

Defense attorneys, and for that matter, prosecuting attorneys, need to learn how to examine what the real basis of the science, if any, is. The real tough part is, jurors need to know how to examine the same -- and most jurors, if its not their own field, are awed by an expert claiming to know for sure.

There was a very dubious child molestation case (the child was vehemently denying the charge against her married biological father), where an "expert" testified that his own method was guaranteed to elicit truthful testimony from a child (she had made incriminating statements to him). The case was overturned in part because the judge had refused to allow testimony by another expert, that there was no science or special reliability at all to this method.

dudleysharp said...


You need to fact check.

You misunderstand both the forensic evidence and findings, as well as the additional evidence, in the Willingham case.

None of the forensic reviews of the fire in Willingham case can exclude arson in that case.

Texas state representatives have upheld that the fire was arson.

So, the current findings include that it is arson and that arson cannot be excluded.

As Gerald Hurst states: “I never had a case where I could exclude arson,” “It’s not possible to do that.”(2)

Hurst is the scientist whose findings were allegedly discounted by Gov. Perry, as well as the courts, shortly before Willingham's execution.

Hurst is definitely correct in the Willingham case, that arson can't be excluded.

However, I find Hurst's statement too broad. For fires containing a flashover, it will often make it impossible to exclude arson. But, I don't believe that in all flashover fires or in all fires that don't have a flashover that arson can always be included as a possible cause.

Much additional evidence points to Willingham's guilt (3). You should read about it before your next article on this case.

Some relevant readings:

False innocence claims by anti death penalty activists are all too common. Some examples:

"The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents"


The 130 (now 138) death row "innocents" scam

Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review"

"At the Death House Door" Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?"


1) "How many arsonists are innocent?", August 11, 2011

2) "Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions", John Schwartz, New York Times, October 14, 2010,

3) A full review of the case:

"Cameron Todd Willingham: Another Media Meltdown", A Collection of Articles

dudleysharp said...

The current and recent Catholic teaching on the death penalty is a matter of prudential judgement.

Therefore, any Catholic is free to support more executions, if they find that position to be prudent.

Such Catholics are free to reject the current Church teachings on the death penalty, which are based upon the secular "defense of society" which, wrongly, finds that the wildly varying securities within the world's prison systems defend society, enough, so that imposition of the death penalty is, virtually, unnecessary.

2000 years of Church teachings, based upon biblical, theological and traditional foundations overwhelm the recent, secular "defense of society" teaching.

"Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars"

Christianity and the death penalty

Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,

"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

Opponents in capital punishment have blood on their hands, Dennis Prager, 11/29/05,

"A Death Penalty Red Herring: The Inanity and Hypocrisy of Perfection", Lester Jackson Ph.D.,

"Killing Equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents"

"The Death Penalty: Neither Hatred nor Revenge"

"The Death Penalty: Not a Human Rights Violation"

"The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents"

27 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

"Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review"

"Pope John Paul II: Prudential Judgement and the death penalty"

Red Cardigan said...

Mr. Sharp, while your comments are certainly welcome, I would ask you not to fill the comment boxes with links, as this tends to make reading difficult for others--especially when the links are to a site where you are a listed contributor. Surely it would be better to simply link to the website in question and invite others to read, rather than to link to individual articles on the site?

That said, I do not agree that Catholics are "free to reject" any Church teaching, and I find that statement rather bizarre.

Rebecca in ID said...

uh, Dudley, the whole case rested on the findings that the fire had to have been caused by arson. They thought that it was obvious someone had poured an accelerant all over the place and lit it on fire. Since the father was the only adult around, then they concluded he must have been the one to do it. The new evidence showed that far from being a certainty that accelerant had been poured, there was in fact no forensic evidence to come to that conclusion at all. So yeah, it is *possible* there was arson, but you don't convict and execute someone on that basis. What was learned about fires (how the v pattern and puddles can easily be formed without any arson involved, how accidental fires progress, etc) was in accord with the man's testimony of what had happened.

Red Cardigan said...

Rebecca, that's a very good point. Everything the original arson investigator claimed was "proof" of arson turned out not to be. There was no proof of arson. Mr. Willingham had no real motive to kill his children. Without strong evidence of arson, the prosecution simply had no case--and yet they executed him.

Karen said...

dudleysharp: Murder is "intentionally or knowingly causing the death of another person." The prosecution has to prove that the defendant actually killed someone, not merely show that intentional killing can't be ruled out. In the Willingham case, the prosecution had the burden of presenting enough evidence to show that Willingham actually started the fire with the intent of using that to kill his daughters. If there is no direct evidence of arson, there is no murder and therefore certainly no cause for the death penalty. Governor Perry, however, was too much of a coward to argue to the public that killing innocent people by the state is no better than killing during a robbery.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

"Texas state representatives have upheld that the fire was arson."

What has been abundantly proved is that those Texas state representatives knew nothing about how a fire moves, burns, reacts, and develops, within an inflammable building. They relied on all kinds of assumptions which have been scientifically proven to be false.

So, their finding contributes nothing to the investigation, and without that finding, there is no evidence of arson.

dudleysharp said...

It is not at all bizarre to say that any Catholic is free to have their own opinion when a Catholic teaching is a matter of prudential judgement, which the current teaching on the death penalty is.

Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI ): " . . if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia." Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick: More Concerned with 'Comfort' than Christ?, Catholic Online, 7/11/2004,

dudleysharp said...

Regarding Willingham, the case for his guilt is still quite solid. I provided the links. I hope you review.

In arson forensics, a fire producing a flashover may erase the evidence for arson, which is why the current state of the case is:

Arson can't be excluded and
it was arson.

As you know, the original fire experts examined the crime scene, which all of those critical of the original work did not.

Som of the findings for arson have not been contradicted.

Geoff G. said...

"Arson can't be excluded and it was arson."

Those are not equivalent statements.

"Arson can't be excluded," means that arson is one possible explanation for the fire, but that there are also other viable explanations as well.

"It was arson," means that all other possible explanations are excluded. That's not the case here.

I'm fully prepared to admit that the former is a true statement. Having said that, if there are other equally (or more) compelling explanations for the fire, then the prosecution has not met its burden and enough doubt exists to acquit.

But even that's not what I'm arguing here. I'm not saying that Willingham should have been simply released and the case closed. What I'm saying is that evidence arose that cast some degree of doubt on the original conclusions. Maybe a lot, maybe a little.

To the degree that the criminal justice system ought to be concerned with, you know, justice, it hardly seems unreasonable to delay execution while these new findings are investigated. You can always execute someone later on, but once you do do it, it is, as Red says, rather irrevocable if you later find out you made a mistake.

Red Cardigan said...

Geoff, you're right here, and Mr. Sharp, who is an activist in favor of the death penalty, probably won't listen.

The standards of criminal justice are that the perpetrator must be proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Far more than mere reasonable doubt exists in the Willingham case, which is why I--and many others--think that Texas may well have executed an innocent man. Consider these facts:

--No tests proved the presence of accelerants except for the presence of mineral spirits on the porch, where a small charcoal barbecue was routinely kept. Investigators, in other words, discovered no actual chemical evidence of accelerants anywhere inside the home.

--No evidence that Cameron Todd Willingham had purchased any accelerants in the kind of quantities used in arson was ever located or presented at trial.

--No evidence whatsoever that Cameron Todd Willingham wished to be rid of his children exists. There was no financial motive in their deaths, either, and Gov. Perry's statement to the media that Willingham had beaten his wife during her pregnancy severely enough to cause abortion and that he intended to cause abortion was simply not true. (Mr. Willingham admitted that he *had* hit his wife throughout their tumultuous relationship and marriage, but the prosecution's portrayal of him as a savage wife-beater trying to force his pregnant wife to miscarry was simply not borne out by any evidence, including Mrs. Willingham's own testimony.)

--Mr. Willingham refused a plea bargain early on that would have allowed him to escape the death penalty.

--The testimony of the jailhouse snitch is extremely unreliable, yet it was that testimony (in which Willingham was supposed to have blurted out his guilt to a man he'd only just met) along with the "proof" of arson that condemned him to die. The snitch recanted his testimony, recanted the recantation, and eventually asked, when questioned about it all, whether the statute of limitations on perjury had passed! Without the "proof" of arson and the snitch's testimony, there was no case against Willingham.

--I believe that Willingham was innocent. But even if by some mystical force he was guilty, he did not receive a fair trial, was not convicted on accurate evidence and testimony, and was sentenced to die in spite of TONS of reasonable doubt. That alone makes his case a travesty of justice, but when you add to that the overwhelming likelihood that he was, indeed, factually innocent, it's a chilling indictment of the modern death-penalty happy state.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

dudleydowrong is one of the people my 4th grade teacher was talking about when she sarcastically remarked "My mind's made up, don't confuse me with the facts." He ranks right up there with the voter who said "It takes balls to execute an innocent man." He has listed a long series of links to where he and others equally immune to facts have spouted their opinion, then turned around to say "See, its all in my posts." As the Bellman cried in Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark," "What I tell you three times is true!"

The bottom line is that there is no evidence to show that a crime was committed. The standard of proof is to show beyond a reasonable doubt
a) that a crime was committed,
b) that the defendant committed the crime.
No evidence establishes either one. IF the state fire inspectors' assumptions had been accurate, there would have been ample evidence. The experts who reviewed their work, accepted as true all empirical observations of the scene. They just knew, and confirmed through painstaking investigation, that those empirical facts did not in any way shape or form support the inferences the fire investigators drew.

Once again, no evidence at all, unless you are just bound and determined that the state never makes mistakes, and never admits any it made. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote a short story on that theme. Was he writing about the USSR or Texas? Its hard to tell sometimes).

dudleysharp said...

Geoff G. said...
"Arson can't be excluded and it was arson."

Those are not equivalent statements.

Dudley reply: Nor were they intended to be. Those are the two current findings in the case. They are different, as were the findings, as I explained.

dudleysharp said...


In this case, your teacher would say:

"Siarlys, you need to do your homework, like Dudley did. If you read Dudley's links, you would have found substantial evidence for guilt in the Willingham case. Be a good girl, do your homework, and I won't send a note to your parents.."

Red Cardigan said...

Mr. Sharp, I have deleted your most recent post, because I have already asked you not to "spam" my comments section with huge lists of links to what is essentially your own writing at a site for which you have written extensively.

I have looked at some of your massive number of links, as you have (rather insultingly) told people to do three separate times now (including the comment I just deleted). I am unconvinced. You share no new facts, you do not address the Innocence Project's arguments nor the excellent issues raised in the New Yorker piece, and (to be perfectly frank) your writing is unclear and poorly organized.

My regular readers will tell you that I am patient to a fault with commenters, especially with those who disagree with me, so my action in deleting your most recent post is not a targeting of your opinions because I disagree with them. Rather, it is the action of a blog owner who has already asked courteously that a commenter cease posting copious links to his own writing as "replies" to people who are raising good points and arguments, and who has been ignored by this commenter.

Frankly, if you have nothing better to say than "You people are wrong, and I've already proved it by my writing on this blog site for which I write regularly," then you have nothing to say at all. Your links do not "prove" Cameron Todd Willingham's guilt; in fact, you seem prejudiced (by your copious writings) to believe that all Death Row inmates must be guilty and that even those eventually released must really be guilty despite any and all proof of their "guilt."

Thus, you are unlikely to benefit from this conversation, and you certainly aren't adding anything to it. If you wish to continue, you may do so only under the condition that you post no further links to We have all seen the address, and can investigate it for ourselves, but there is no call to post links over and over again (links which, if I may say so as kindly as possible, do not strengthen your argument at all and, in fact, weaken it).

Posts from here on out spamming this combox with links to will be deleted with no further explanation.

Turmarion said...

I don't really have much to add to this, aside from agreement with you regarding the topic and Mr. Sharp's comments. I would point to his statement, " The current and recent Catholic teaching on the death penalty is a matter of prudential judgement. Therefore, any Catholic is free to support more executions, if they find that position to be prudent." This is a common error that those on both the Left and Right who disagree with Church teaching often make.

Say I'm a recovering alcoholic and I go to my priest and tell him that my best friend is having a party in a bar and I'm going to to. My priest reminds me that the last time I did that I fell off the wagon, ended up on a week-long bender, and undid months of progress in drying out. I respond, "That won't happen this time, Father--I'll be there, but I won't touch a drop." So I go, and sure enough, end up on a week-long bender. Where was my "prudential judgement"?

It's not the business of an individual confessor or the Church as a whole to tell people--or societies--what to do or make decisions for them; but that doesn't mean that "exercising prudential judgment" means "listen respectfully and do what you dang well please afterward", as is often implied and as Mr. Sharp implies above.

Now sometimes prudential judgment is a sticky wicket. A good example would be voting, which you've recently discussed. In the current environment, no matter what one's politics, one can hardly avoid remote material cooperation with evil no matter whom one votes for. However, the Church has made it very clear that a prudential judgment against the death penalty is almost always non-existent in the present day. Somehow pro-death-penalty Catholics seem to miss that. Another example was the last two Popes have spoken out against the current war in Iraq, branding it as unjust. The conservative Catholic press tended to either start up with the "prudential judgment" stuff, stick its hands in its ears and go "Ya ya ya, I can't hear you!" or, like the odious Micheal Novak, do amazing intellectual backflips to show that the war was perfectly just (he was given the cold shoulder at the Vatican when he was more or less dispatched by the previous administration to make its case).

It just goes to show that all too many conservative Catholics are just as much "cafeteria Catholics" as the dreaded liberals they deride. We may disagree on some things, Red, but I must give you kudos for consistency in this respect and for pointing this out to your conservative confrères.

Chris-2-4 said...

"there appears to be little doubt today that the fire was only a tragic accident, that the Willingham children were not murdered at all, and that Texas did, indeed, execute an innocent man:"

Little doubt among whom?

c matt said...

None of the forensic reviews of the fire in Willingham case can exclude arson in that case.

So what. The prosecution has to do more than "not exclude what we think happened". They have to positively prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the allegations the prosecution puts forward are true. Perry, like most politicians, is the type who will do what is expedient to advance his career. I have the feeling his foreign policy will be no better, and likely worse, than Bush.

It is also a little difficult to accept at face value arguments promoted by a site with an obvious bias.

c matt said...

It is not at all bizarre to say that any Catholic is free to have their own opinion when a Catholic teaching is a matter of prudential judgement, which the current teaching on the death penalty is.

Actually, it is quite bizarre. Church teaching is to be accepted. Teh prudential part comes in with respect to applying that teaching to a particular situation. But you are not free (at least, not in the sense of being a faithful Catholic) to ignore Church teaching on prudential grounds. In a specific case, if the facts warrant, you may disagree with how that teaching applies to a particular case, if, in fact the teaching allows for such application. Abortion does not allow for "prudential" application - it is everywhere and always wrong. The death penalty may allow for some prudential application of the conditions of the teaching are met, but in the Willingham case, those conditions were clearly not met.

Anonymous said...

"It is also a little difficult to accept at face value arguments promoted by a site with an obvious bias."

Ain't it, tho...

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Well said Erin. I have nothing to add.

eulogos said...

The Catholic teaching is that the death penalty is warranted if a society can defend itself in no other way.

Whether any particular society is in that condition is a matter of prudential judgment.

Corrections officers who believe that having the death penalty to hand over violent inmates with life sentences may deter them from attacking guards or killing other inmates may have a prudential opinion that the death penalty has some value in protecting at least themselves, against violent criminals.

Police officers and prosecutors who know that they get convictions to lesser charges by taking the death penalty off the table, know that having the death penalty there makes their job of putting away violent criminals easier.

Catholics in these occupations and those who listen to them, have reasons to have a different prudential judgment about this than the pope.

The right of the state to employ the death penalty has been Catholic teaching for a long time. The prudential opinion that modern societies have reached a point where the death penalty is no longer warranted is very recent. Perhaps it is true. But it is not unreasonable, or denied to Catholics, to believe that it is not.
Susan Peterson

eulogos said...

PS Whereas abortion and contraception have been forbidden by the Church since its earliest days until the current day, and are not subjects for prudential opinion.

(When it is legitimate to use NFP is a subject for the prudential opinions of individuals in their own situations.)

Susan Peterson

eulogos said...

PPSS I am not advocating for Perry in saying this. Don't know enough about him. Do think a governor in the position to grant clemency has a tremendous responsibility to review all evidence available and make a decision in accord with the evidence not in accord with what he thinks will be politically best for himself.
Susan Peterson

dudleysharp said...


It'ds your site with your reules and you can delete whatever you like.

I appreciate your allowing me to post on your blog.

Thank you.

I posted the material because facts matter and most I have encountered on this blog do not know the facts.

I posted relevant links to the topic, for those interested in gaining more knowledge on the topics.

I can't post the materail in its entirety, here, because you would delete that as well. Yes?

Yes, much of it is my work, which I would hope folks would fact check. I already have done that and it will stand up to any scrutiny, here, if allowed the chance to remain.

dudleysharp said...


I agree.

Perry would have lost nothing by granting a stay for Willingham.

Whereas, Perry would have a lot to lose if he had the chance to save an innocent man, but did not.

Politicians, who are smart, cause the least damage to themsleves. Perry and his team are not stupid.

The courts rejected Hurst's report as a reason for a stay, as well.

dudleysharp said...

Anonymous said...
"It is also a little difficult to accept at face value arguments promoted by a site with an obvious bias."

I don't accept anyone's arguement at face value. I look at it consider it, test it and fact check if needed.

I recommend that to all.

dudleysharp said...

also look at "Evangelium Vitae, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Death Penalty", p 519, Steven A. Long, The Thomist, 63 (1999): 511-552

Chris-2-4 said...

"It is also a little difficult to accept at face value arguments promoted by a site with an obvious bias."

Indeed. Isn't virtually the entire case that Willingham is innocent promoted by an organization with a bias to abolish the death penalty?

Anonymous said...

Ted Kennedy voted for partial birth abortion and was given a funeral fit for a Saint. Plus, there are many, many democrat pro-abortion pols and the church leadership doesn't seem to mind. So I don't think they'll be to concerned if I vote for Rick Perry. After all, pro-death penalty is pro-life.


dudleysharp said...


To be clear on Cahtolic teaching.

Fr. John De Celles, "What Ardent Practicing Catholics Do" (1)

"Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is … a grave and clear obligation to oppose them … [I]t is therefore never licit to … "take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it." "In other words: it is always a grave or mortal sin for a politician to support abortion."

"Now, some will want to say that these bishops-and I- are crossing the line from Religion into to politics. But it was the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) who started this. The bishops, and I, are not crossing into politics; she, and other pro-abortion Catholic politicians, regularly cross over into teaching theology and doctrine, And it's our job to try clean up their mess."

"Some would say, well Father, what about those people who support the war in Iraq, or the death penalty, or oppose undocumented aliens? Aren’t those just as important, and aren’t Catholic politicians who support those “bad Catholics” too?

"Simple answer: no."

"Not one of those issues, or any other similar issues, except for the attack on traditional marriage is a matter of absolute intrinsic evil in itself. Not all wars are unjust — and good Catholics can disagree on facts and judgments. Same thing with the other issues: facts are debatable, as are solutions to problems."

(1) "What Ardent Practicing Catholics Do: Correcting Pelosi", National Review Online, 9/1/2008 6:00AM

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Anybody see a post that started "I doubt if Ted Kennedy ever "voted for partial birth abortion" and then went into analysis of the "fact checking" on dudley's site?

I'll try to reconstruct it, but I got a message saying it was saved, and I don't see anything saying Erin deleted it.

Red Cardigan said...

Siarlys, I'm sorry, but I checked in Blogger's "spam" folder and my comments--the comment you describe just isn't there. If it shows up later by the mystery of the inner workings of this comment software, I'll free it up and publish it, but as of right now I see nothing.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

OK, here goes:

I doubt very much that Ted Kennedy or anyone ever "voted for partial birth abortion." He may have voted against legislation which would have made some abortion procedures a criminal offense. He may have done this for any number of reasons, including the reasons that the United States Supreme Court struck down one such law, and later approved another such law.

The reason the first law was ruled null and void is that it was so vague it gave a doctor no reasonable notice of when he would be breaking the law. The later version rectified this with a very specific definition, which the court accepted. Indeed, I found Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent rather hysterical.

There is a difference between voting down bad legislation, and voting to implement a particular measure. Nobody has ever been required by law to have a partial birth abortion or any other kind.

I also insist, whether or not devout Roman Catholics agree, that in our constitutional republic, the church has NO authority to DIRECT how an elected public representative votes. First, the terms of the constitution are not up to the church, they are what they are, period, until amended by the process duly set forth for doing so. Second, elected representatives are accountable to the voters of their district, all of them, not to an ex post facto reset by the bishop. Third, adhering fully to the canon of their church, they may have made a prudential judgement that the best way to adhere to that canon is not represented by the particular legislative program the bishops have decided to lobby for. Whatever that prudential judgement may be, they should be open and honest about it when they run for office. More than that nobody should expect of them.

Siarlys Jenkins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Siarlys Jenkins said...

Now Google is telling me the word verification was wrong, and when I enter it again, posting my comment twice. Oh well.

Moving on to Dudley's vaunted web site. I looked over a few pages. I found little that could be called "fact checking." Mostly, he flatly denies all kinds of things said by others as "non-facts," without much research.

He lists a number of cases where a person condemned to death was alleged to be innocent. In many of the cases he selects, that may indeed have been a dubious contention. He neatly tip-toes around mentioning any of the more clear cut cases where someone condemned to death almost certainly WAS innocent, or where evidence of guilt was utterly insufficient.

He also dredges up a few cases that are decades old, where the primary controversy was a matter of politics, not arguments for or against the death penalty per se. In one, there was not even a person killed -- it was an espionage case. In the Sacco and Vanzetti case, nobody really knows the truth, because the prosecution was initiated for reasons other than a pristine desire to even-handedly enforce the law -- but I have read a reasonably well researched study which concluded that Sacco was guilty of robbery and murder, but Vanzetti had nothing to do with it, a neat split in terms of political brownie points, but hardly a solid argument for the irrevocable act of execution.

One of the cases Dudley doesn't mention is the two Hispanic men who came close to being executed for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico in Illinois. It took until 2009 to formally convict Brian Dugan, who had been confessing to the crime since 1985. For years, Du Page County prosecutors weren't hearing it. They had their convictions, that was the end of it. A state highway patrolman had suggested Dugan even before he confessed -- something he did only after he was serving two life sentences for other murders.

Nobody was more upset than the family of a woman Dugan raped and murdered after Nicarico, and after prosecutors had been pointed to Dugan. Those in the prosecution line of work have more blood on their hands than innocent defendants they convict. There are also those whose lives might have been saved if the focus was on identifying the guilty, rather than on convicting whoever is currently in custody.

Now Jeanine's family is understandably upset that Dugan won't be executed because Illinois has abolished the death penalty, mostly in horror over all the innocent people who made it to death row. But for years, her family was demanding with equal fervor that the two men previously, and wrongfully, convicted, should be executed.

Dudley also omits the case that inspired the movie "The Thin Blue Line," in which the prosecution's star witness turned out to be the perpetrator, taking advantage of the fact that police will often believe the first witness they interview. Knowing the fingerprints of the man they sought to charge were not on the murder weapon, they offered it to him and asked him to pick it up. (He prudently declined).

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Sorry, but there's been a lot of water under the bridge while the computer gremlins were doing whatever it is they do.

Dudley's coverage of the Willingham case, is the same unsupported argument he had made here. No facts that show even the slightest proof of arson. Of course nobody can PROVE that a given fire COULD NOT HAVE BEEN arson. It is mostly true that one cannot "prove a negative." If I were to pick out five unsolved murders, and allege that Dudley committed them, there would be at least some that he could not PROVE he DID NOT commit.

That is why the law requires proof OF a crime, beyond a reasonable doubt, before a conviction can be sustained. There is no credible evidence whatsoever that the fire in the Willingham home was arson. None. There was a fire. That is all we know.

The "evidence" of arson has all been painstakingly shown to appear equally clearly in fires that are NOT set with use of an accelerant. The fire inspectors were utterly incompetent to make the judgement that convicted Willingham. I didn't find that reading the Innocence Project web site. I found it reading a very detailed and thorough article in the New Yorker, which I still have a copy of.

A really sad entry on Dudley's site is the continued insistence of Mrs. Willingham that her husband killed their children. It must be difficult for a wife who stood by her husband, during and after his trial, then later became convinced by reading court records that he was guilty, and who denied him burial next to their children, to face up to the fact that she was wrong the second time, not the first time. It would take a really big woman (or man, if the gender roles were reversed) to face up to the truth in such a trying circumstance. But her little article doesn't provide any facts, just her heartfelt opinion, perhaps tinged by denial of a deep down sense of guilt.

dudleysharp said...


At some point you have to look at the facts, which you are, apparently, unwilling to do.

If you read (1) the reports, critical of the trial arson findings, as well as (2) the criticisms and corrections of those reports and (3) the reports and assesments that still find for arson, you have this (A) it may be arson, it may be accidental, or, as you properly state, undetermined or as Gerald Hurst stated "it is impossible to tell the origins of the fire." and this (B) it was arson. With all the available evidence, the weight of the evidence falls to arson. (4)

In addition to the forensics,
there is considerable, additional evidence for guilt, which has just gotten stronger over the last 14 months. (5) Right after the fire, Willingham made up a bunch of conflicting stories about how he tried to save his children. We, now, know, if there was ever any doubt, that Willingham lied and never tried to save his children.

He confessed to his parents, the day before his execution, that he never tried to save his and Stacy's 3 daughters. See David Granns' article for the defense in the New Yorker. (6)

A previously unknown eyewitness, who lived in the neighborhood and still does, has come forward and made a statement to the police that he saw Willingham taking things from the house and putting them in his car, as the house and children burned. He claims that he has a corroborating witness, a friend who was with him, that he refuses to identify. He states that he didn't give a statement at the time of the crime, because the police he talked to didn't want to be bothered by him at the time.

His descriptions are supported by other statements from other eyewitnesses given to police, right after the fire.

If you have not done so alreadt, and it appears yu have not, I recommend you read the trial transcript, the police witness statements, including the latest one, the forensic reviews and the criticisms of them, the review by the Corsicana City Attorney, as well as others'.

eulogos said...

Whether one particular person was guilty or innocent really doesn't affect the general arguments about the death penalty. So I am not sure why we are arguing about it. The possibility clearly exists that someone could be wrongly convicted, and that is something which has to be part of the discussion of the subject.

We don't seem to have considered in our discussion that death is not the end. I have always thought those scenes of the priest giving absolution on the scaffold and the prisoner forgiving the hangman were full of the poignancy and pathos of life, full of human dignity, heightening the awareness of the transitory nature of human life, of the great value of just being alive, and at the same time, of the greater scene on to which the condemned was moving, of awe at the thought of a soul who in the next moment will be facing God's judgement. To be executed justly is to be given a chance to go to one's inevitable end in a state of grace, absolved, and with the apostolic blessing. To be executed unjustly is to be given the same chance, and not a worse fate than the person who dies of cancer or an auto accident.

What I think is wrong about the modern death penalty is the ten or fifteen years on death row. The increasingly clinical nature of the ways death is meted out, the isolation of the prisoner, the unseen, usually vindictive, watchers.

Susan Peterson

dudleysharp said...

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., considered one of the most prominent Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century. 1998: "There are certain moral norms that have always and everywhere been held by the successors of the Apostles in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Although never formally defined, they are irreversibly binding on the followers of Christ until the end of the world." "Such moral truths are the grave sinfulness of contraception and direct abortion. Such, too, is the Catholic doctrine which defends the imposition of the death penalty.""Most of the Church's teaching, especially in the moral order, is infallible doctrine because it belongs to what we call her ordinary universal magisterium." "Equally important is the Pope's (Pius XII) insistence that capital punishment is morally defensible in every age and culture of Christianity." " . . . the Church's teaching on 'the coercive power of legitimate human authority' is based on 'the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine.' It is wrong, therefore 'to say that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances.' On the contrary, they have 'a general and abiding validity.' (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, pp 81-2)." "Capital Punishment: New Testament Teaching", Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., 1998

dudleysharp said...

Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council. 1997

Some opposing capital punishment " . . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life."

"Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death.""Amerio on capital punishment ", Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007 ,

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Dudley, you'll have to settle with your fellow Catholics what exactly is infallible authority. I don't recognize the Magisterium as anything but fallible human beings trying to do the right thing. Sometimes I appreciate what they offer, sometimes I don't, and I feel free to choose. What does God think? I suspect we all get it wrong part of the time. I suspect some points on which I AGREE with your church, we ALL get it wrong. IF I knew directly from God which times, I'd like to think I would adjust accordingly. But I can't be sure. I'm as inclined to do what feels good to me as anyone. By sheer grace, no virtue of mine, alcohol and heroin, or multiple infidelities, are not among the things that feel good to me.

As for your constant harping on alleged "facts," I didn't find much that meets that description in your posted arguments. I found the repetitious restatements of a true believer, who wouldn't recognize a fact AS a fact if it contradicted your already-formed opinion.

What really discredits your argument is the manner you admit that the evidence does not show whether the fire was arson or not, then add "It was arson," a statement which is entirely without proof.

There are circumstances where I think an execution could be justified. One is when there simply are no facilities for imprisonment, no resources. Another was raised earlier: if someone is serving life without parole for homicide, and kills a fellow prisoner or a guard, what are you going to do? Give them another life sentence? But them in a black hole at the bottom of a well? There isn't much left to do BUT kill them. Willingham's case,however, is an example of how:

1) Fallible human beings can think they know the truth, when they don't,

2) Once their ego and prestige are on the line, it becomes tremendously difficult to admit they made a mistake, even if the admission could save an innocent man's life.

In addition, the manner in which Perry peremptorily dismissed a review board in order to suppress a meaningful review is a clear case of "He doth protest too much." He knew the inquiry could not uphold the verdict, and didn't want to hear it. It seems you don't either.

dudleysharp said...


These two statements describe you to a "t":

1) Fallible human beings can think they know the truth, when they don't,

Siarlys, it would help if you knew the facts, but you don't. Yes, we are all fallible. You just more so on this topic.


2) Once their ego and prestige are on the line, it becomes tremendously difficult to admit they made a mistake, even if the admission could save an innocent man's life.

Siarlys, Gov. Perry, obviously, did not do that. A stay of Willingham's execution would have cost Perry zero political points, whereas knowingly executing an innocent man would have been very costly to Perry, both politically as well as morally.

Siarlys writes:

"In addition, the manner in which Perry peremptorily dismissed a review board in order to suppress a meaningful review is a clear case of "He doth protest too much." He knew the inquiry could not uphold the verdict, and didn't want to hear it. It seems you don't either."

Siarlys, what nonsense.

I had already read all of the forensic reports, the police wtness statements and the trial transcript, prior to the Commission members being replaced ans read all the later ones that came out.

Far from not wanting to hear about it, I read as much as I could find on the topic, as well as called experts in forensic fire analysis.

As I detailed, there were numerous reasons for Perry to switch board members, the least of which would have been a cover up, because Perry well knew that switching Commission members would bring more scrutiny, not less, just as it did.

1) The fact that the Commission was blatantly breaking the law, in reviewing the Willingham case, would obvioulsy be an excellent reason to replace any government board.

2) The fact that the Beyler report was both "leaked" and very much looked like a piece of defense attorney work was another cause for alarm.

3) Obviously, there law controlling the board allowed Perry to replace commission members. Based upon all of the problems, it was likely a prudent move on Perry's part, even though it hurt him, politically.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

DudleyDoWrong, you continue to harp on "facts," but the substance of your argument continues to reduce itself to "Facts? You're the one who has the facts wrong, not me." That's barely good enough when preaching to the choir, much less trying to make a convincing case to anyone else.

The commission was blatantly breaking the law? What law? Cite the law. Then state exactly what acts the commission committed that were a violation. Then explain why Gov. Perry never cited any violations of law, just dismissed the commission and made vague pronouncement that the man was a monster, therefore the commission shouldn't proceed any further.

Obviously there is a law controlling the board...??? Again, what law? What did it say? What were the controls it imposed?

For all your claim of extensive reading, you are long on assertions, and woefully short on substance. Are we supposed to just take your word for it?

Dave said...

I think that Perry was following Texas law. Perry does not have the power (correct me if I am wrong) to cancel a man's execution. At most, he had the power to delay it for 30 days. It is notable that the state's Pardons and Paroles board did not think the case warranted a stay of execution, either.

Now, Perry could possibly have been wrong, although here the evidence seems to be slanted towards trying to show that he was innocent and there is another side of the story, but at any rate, I don't think this case is any evidence that he simply didn't give a damn.

Joseph Palmer said...

"I believe that Willingham was innocent."

I believe that there was enough reasonable doubt to equit post-haste, but "reasonable doubt" does not equal "innocent". Dudley Sharp is extreme in his conviction that the man was guilty and you're being extreme in your view that he was innocent.

I disagree with the death penalty in modern times because we have the facilities to retain prisoners until their natural death, thus preventing them from being a danger to society... so I don't want to be misunderstood in my next statement.

In this particular case, I believe that the death sentence was extreme even if the man was positively guilty. If he killed his three daughters by burning them to death in an act of arson, it doesn't not make him an arsonist, and definitely not a serial arsonist. He would have murdered his children, yes, but that isn't enough to prove that he would therefore become a threat to society at large. Thus, there would be no reason to sentence him to death at all.

Though I wouldn't agree with it, a sentence of death to a serial arsonist that murdered his children in a blaze would make more sense.

I believe that I'm a reasonable person and that most reasonable people would agree with me. I don't think Perry was reasonable at all in his decision not to, at least, stay the execution... I don't know of any other irrational decisions he's made regarding the death penalty in his state, but I'm sure there are more than just this one. It also shows his inconsistency with regard to his so-called "pro-life" stance. If there is any inconsistency at all, that means that he hasn't reasoned out his position very well and has left the door open to be "convinced" that abortion is bad EXCEPT in cases of mental illness, physical illness, rape, incest, disability, etc. and that ESCR is A-OK like many of his other Republican incosistent cohorts (McCain comes to mind). So, his anti-abortion stance is built upon a pretty flimsy framework that lacks solid conviction and will probably be blown around with the political winds.

If this guy wins the primary, I won't be voting this year. Last time I felt compelled to vote for McCain. I shouldn't have voted at all.

scotju said...

You claim not to be a liberal Red, but all the classic opposition to the death penalty has always come from those who have swallowed the liberal line on "reforming' a criminal rather than punishing him as he deserves to be. As a person who lives on the outskirts of a city that is being rocked by at least one senseless mrder or shooting a month, I find the arguement for the death penalty by Mr Sharp to be very compelling. Mr Sharp's argements are based on true facts, not the kumbaya, squishy, feel good crap that has come into the Church in the last 50 years.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

I won't comment on the Willingham case but I will comment on the Catholic view of capital punishment.

Red, dudleysharp is right. The result of JPII's arbitrary revisionism concerning capital punishment it that the Catholic position is effectively abolitionist, even when the person facing execution is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, and admits not only to the crime but to pre-meditation.

The best evidence is JPII's request to President Bush to grant clemency to Timothy McVeigh, despite the fact that McVeigh knowingly murdered 163 people.

I will post only one link: an article I wrote for David Horowitz's Front Page Magazine several years ago on the Vatican's reaction to Saddam Hussein's execution.

Suffice to say that the Catholic teaching on capital punishment not only contradicts centuries of teaching from Tradition but also from Scripture. Read the link.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

In fact, I'll even go further: The Catholic position on capital punishment is immoral because it puts the perpetrators of evil ahead of the victims of evil.