Thursday, February 2, 2012

Since He Didn't Prove He's Innocent

Around 6 a.m. on November 21, 1990, Michael D. Webb poured gasoline around his house, even poured it on his sleeping, teenage daughters, then set the house on fire.  His three-year old son, Michael Patrick Webb, died in the blaze, of smoke inhalation.
Or maybe not.
Oh, that was the date.  The house did burn and the boy did die as a consequence. But whether Webb set the fire, that's more of a question.
The evidence:  He's a scoundrel and a philanderer.  He was in serious financial straits even after gutting his daughters' trust funds of $100,000.  He said some seriously troubling things that might support a claim that he did it.  There are a couple of his fingerprints in troubling spots.
And there's the report from the fire chief, Virgil Murphy, who investigated the fire, though his investigation wasn't based on science.  Murphy concluded that the fire was an arson, that had all the trailed gasoline "had ignited the chances of anybody escaping from that home were very, very slim."  And Murphy identified two places where, he said, the fire was started. Places that helped point a finger at Webb.
On the other hand, there's another suspect, one Webb and his lawyers claim wasn't adequately investigated by the police, and whose possible involvement, they say, was hidden by the prosecutors at the time of trial.
And there's an actual scientist, Gerald Hurst, one of the foremost arson scientists in the country.  Hurst said, simply, that Murphy's claim about where the fire started has no basis.  It's not that it couldn't have been started in those spots.  It's just that there's no reason to think it did.
Recommend LWOP, death in prison, said his lawyers.  That'll give him the time to try and get a new trial and a chance to be found not guilty.
Unless you're the Parole Board.  Since Hurst can't say that Murphy's guess about where the fire started was wrong, surely it was right.  After all, if science can't answer the question definitively, then the non-scientific answer must be right.
And there was all that other evidence.
And Webb sure seemed like a sleazebag when the Board interviewed him.
And he's still claiming to be innocent, which means he doesn't admit he's guilty, which he obviously is, so he's not just a sleazebag but a lying sleazebag.
Unless, of course, he actually didn't do it. Recommend LWOP, death in prison, said his lawyers.  That'll give him the time to try and get a new trial and a chance to be found not guilty.
Given the overwhelming evidence of guilt, there is no manifest injustice in this case that would warrant the grant of executive clemency.
I don't imagine anyone involved (except maybe Webb, though maybe not) was surprised.
And you know, there's nothing new here.  The Parole Board is no different from the local prosecutors.  Convicted guy wants a chance to prove he's not guilty?  Do whatever you can to stop that.
Because it's really important to not know.*
Unless, of course, he's proved that he didn't do it.  That old "manifest injustice."
There's also this.  Webb's death sentence is pretty much indefinitely stayed. It looks like he's got at least a couple of years to prove his case.
And of course, he's 63 now, which means time's maybe getting short even without the impending murder.

Michael Webb Clemency Report

*See Andrew Cohen's "Is Ohio Keeping Another Innocent Man on Death Row?" in The Atlantic.  It's about Tyrone Noling, who I've written about here and here
Here's the tag line to Cohen's piece.
Instead of searching for the truth, the state is going to absurd lengths to defend a dubious death sentence.
Which is, as I said, the norm rather than the exception.  Because, after all, why would we even want to know?

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