Death penalty opponents rally in Austin

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by Associated Press

wfaa.com

Posted on October 24, 2009 at 9:35 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 12:04 PM

AUSTIN, Texas -- Death penalty opponents, convinced an innocent man was executed in 2004, staged a rally Saturday at the Texas Capitol to call for a moratorium on capital punishment and to highlight the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Willingham was convicted of capital murder for the 1991 deaths of his three children in a fire at their Corsicana home. Forensic scientists have called into question arson evidence used to convict Willingham, who maintained his innocence until his death by lethal injection.

Dozens of protesters marched from the Capitol down Congress Avenue, waving placards and chanting "Hey hey, ho ho, the death penalty has got to go."

Organizers of the rally said they want to bring attention to the Willingham case and Gov. Rick Perry's shake-up of the commission that was investigating the science used to convict him.

"We urge the people and the governor to take a look at this case and examine the new evidence," said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network. "There is no scientific evidence of arson in this case, and if there was no arson, there was no crime ... We want Texas to admit that it's made a tragic mistake here."

The governor has come under fire for replacing members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just before they were to review a new report critical of the arson science used in the capital murder case. Perry has dismissed the criticism as anti-death penalty propaganda, and says capable new members of the panel will move forward with the investigation.

Speaking at a news conference earlier this month, Perry called Willingham a "monster" who beat his wife and then killed his children.

One of the speakers at the event, Willingham friend Elizabeth Gilbert, said she was sickened by Perry's comments. Gilbert, a Houston teacher, befriended Willingham when he was behind bars and became his advocate, helping to spearhead a re-examination of the evidence in his case.

"They are still continuing to throw mud at Todd to keep people's attention away from the fact that there wasn't an arson case," she said.

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle, noting that Willingham's conviction was upheld despite numerous appeals, said the governor believed he was guilty.

"Like most Texans, Gov. Perry supports the death penalty for those who commit the most heinous crimes," she added.

Willingham's mother, Eugenia Willingham, had been scheduled to speak at the rally but was unable to attend. In a written statement released by event organizers, she told of letters she had received from death row inmates saying her son's execution has caused appeals courts to take a closer look at their cases.

"This won't bring Todd back, but I take comfort in knowing that others may be freed because of him," she wrote.

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