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Friday Roundup

Willingham update.  A couple months back, I mentioned the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by Texas in 2004 for setting a fire in his house which killed his three children.  Turns out that since then, nine of the top fire investigators in the country have examined the evidence and concluded that the fire wasn't arson at all, and that the "expert" testimony which sent Willingham to his death was little more than folklore and old wives tales, "wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created." 

And then things got interesting.  Just before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to proceed with its analysis of the case two weeks ago, Gov. Rick Perry -- who signed off on Willingham's execution and who is running for Senator -- replaced the chairman, a defense attorney, with a hard-line prosecutor, delaying the hearing.  Not that it would matter; Perry has already publicly called Willingham a "monster," saying that the evidence against him was "overwhelming."

Well, things just got even more interesting.  With a hat tip to Sentencing Law & Policy comes a pointer to this story, which tells us that Gov. Perry's general counsel, David Medina, and his wife were indicted for tampering with evidence after their house burned down in 2007, with local fire marshals ruling that it had been arson.  The charges were dismissed after the Medinas presented evidence from top experts showing that the fire marshals had gotten it wrong, and that house burned down as a result of an electrical fire.

Medina was counsel to Perry in 2004, when Perry's office received a fax outlining the problems with the evidence in the Willingham case just 88 minutes before he was executed.  It's not known whether Medina, or even Perry, ever saw the fax:  Perry has refused to release any documents relating to the execution.

Brutal decision on child porn search.  Douglas Frechette was a registered sex offender.  In January of 2007, he subscribed to a child pornography web site.  He didn't renew his subscription after it expired a month later.  Sixteen months after that, the Feds got a warrant to search his home computer.  The two sentences before that last one served as the factual basis for the warrant:  there was no allegation that Frechette had actually downloaded child porn onto his computer.  Last week in US v. Frechette, the 6th Circuit reversed the district court's grant of a motion to suppress.  The Circuit's decision was based, essentially, on the inference that if Frechette was going to pay to join the site, then he was going to download from it, and if he was going to download from it, he'd keep the pictures so they'd still be on is computer sixteen months later.

The dissent reasonably suggested that if the offense had been, say, pirating music, no one in his right mind would have sought a search warrant on those facts, let alone granted one.  And she's right.  If the police had come and dragged some soccer mom out of her house in handcuffs because a year and a half earlier she'd made a one-month subscription to a file-sharing service, there'd be rioting in the streets.  We've largely eviscerated the 4th Amendment in our "war on drugs," and child porn's apparently another crime where we're willing to cut corners.

Earlier this week, I mentioned State v. Johnson, in which the 8th District had upheld the grant of a motion to suppress where the police ordered the defendant out of a car for the sole apparent reason that there were other people in the vicinity who might have been selling drugs.  I ran into the lawyer who handled the appeal, and he told me the trial court had written an opinion in the case.  The opinion read, in total:  "This is still America.  Motion granted."

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