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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…

Ohio governor grants reprieve for condemned killer Abdul Awkal

Ohio Death Chamber
Republican Gov. John Kasich on Tuesday issued a rare last-minute reprieve for a condemned killer, sparing Abdul Awkal for 2 weeks to allow a judge to hold a hearing on his mental competency.

Kasich ordered the delay to allow a Cuyahoga County judge to conduct a hearing on whether Awkal is too mentally ill to be put to death. Judge Stuart Friedman ruled Monday there was evidence to believe Awkal was not competent to be executed, but his ruling was not enough to stop the execution.

Kasich's decision came shortly after the Ohio Supreme Court had refused to delay the execution to allow the hearing. Governors in Ohio have the ultimate say on executions.

Former death row inmate John Spirko received reprieves from 2 governors before he was spared, but such interventions by governors have been infrequent since Ohio resumed executions in 1999.

Awkal was sentenced to death for killing his estranged wife, Latife Awkal, and brother-in-law Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz in January 1992 in a room where the Awkals were to take up divorce and custody issues.

In the months before the shooting, Awkal bought a pistol and threatened to kill his wife and her family if they didn't dismiss the divorce proceedings. Prosecutors said Awkal also changed his address and wrote his brother a check for most of his assets before heading to court on the day of the shooting.

Awkal was in the state death house at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville when the decision was announced. He arrived at Lucasville earlier Tuesday and had been in good spirits during his stay.

If put to death this month, Abdul Awkal would be the 2nd man Ohio executes this year since the end of an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment that lasted 6 months.

Awkal's mental health has been the subject of court hearings for years.

A court initially found him not competent to stand trial because of his severe depression. He was sent to a mental health center and put on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications before the court found him competent for trial, where he was convicted of aggravated murder.

Awkal claimed to have sent war plans to President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, communicated with the CIA and FBI and played a central role in managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his attorneys said as evidence of his mental condition.

In an interview last month with the parole board, Awkal admitted his actions were wrong. He spoke of having a previous nervous breakdown and said that he had not cheated on his wife but that she had been with other men. He said he "snapped" at the courthouse when his wife prevented him from holding his daughter, and he denied using the child as a shield when he tried to flee and was shot by officers.

The state opposed the request for a delay, and Kasich and the Ohio Parole Board rejected Awkal's request for mercy based on his mental health allegations.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason said a delay at this stage was unnecessary and the request wasn't fair to the surviving family members of Awkal's victims.

Of the state Supreme Court's 7 justices, 2, Paul Pfeifer and Terrence O'Donnell, would have granted the delay, allowed Awkal to be re-interviewed by a psychiatrist and required the court to set a new execution date, according to Tuesday's ruling.

Awkal had already ordered a special meal, as the last meal is called in Ohio.

Awkal appeared to be "in very good spirits, laughing and talking with execution team members," prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said earlier Tuesday.

The Ohio Parole Board voted 8-1 last month against recommending mercy, with most members concluding that Awkal planned the shooting and that it wasn't the result of a psychotic breakdown.

While he had asserted remorse, "he clearly blames the victims for allegedly creating the circumstances that forced him to kill them," the board said on May 18.

Source: Associated Press, June 5, 2012

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