Monday, August 31, 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham: Debating his 'innocence'

The Cameron Willingham case promises to become one of the most hotly debated capital cases in Texas history, being hailed as it is as the first example of a demonstrably innocent person being executed.

Others, like the prosecutor in the case, insist Willingham was guilty even if the forensics were flawed. See his column from the Corsicana Sun (and a rebuttal from Michael Landauer at the Dallas News' Death Penalty Blog). Judging by comments to Grits last post on the topic, at least some people could and will justify Willingham's execution even if he didn't commit the crime for which he was convicted because of past crimes and bad behavior.

Meanwhile, David Grann in the New Yorker's September 7 issue attempts to provide an antidote to this meme that other testimony would have convicted Willingham in a 16,000 word investigative piece paintakingly evaluating all the other evidence in his case, concluding that "Aside from the scientific evidence of arson, the case against Willingham did not stand up to scrutiny."

Adding its voice to the chorus of disapproval, the New York Times editorialized today that "it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before."

People are going to be debating the details of this case for a long time.

RELATED:

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Judge Jackson was a prosecutor in the Willingham case, and later went on to be judge. He just retired for this last election cycle.

Good guy, hot wife, terribly wrong.

(and lazy)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, I relabeled him in the text.

Anonymous said...

3:08 used to drool over the "hot wife" in class.

/

Anonymous said...

Damn right I did. Didn't you?

Anonymous said...

Damn right I did. Didn't you?

I think you already know the answer.

Anonymous said...

This brings to question an array of issues not the least of which is, why wasn't the process stopped before he was executed? I mean we take whole fleets of aircraft out of the sky and ground them if even one bolt is found to be an issue. We do not allow cars to drive on bridges unless they inspect and pass them. We also will allow elected officials 'retire' from politics before we investigate wrong-doing and prosecute them for it. How in the hell can we justify ANY murder by state if we cannot justify the rest of it.

Scott Cobb said...

This is the greatest crisis in the history of capital punishment in Texas. Our state has lost the moral authority to continue conducting executions after having executed an innocent person. Governor Perry should urge the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend stays for all ten people who currently have scheduled execution dates.

Perry should also urge all District Attorneys and judges in Texas to stop setting new execution dates and to withdraw all pending execution dates. Governor Perry does not have the authority to unilaterally impose a moratorium, but he can act to create a consensus among judges, district attorneys and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to stop executions. The Texas system of carrying out executions must be suspended and the Governor should appoint a balanced commission to examine all aspects of the Texas death penalty system to determine what went wrong in the Willingham case and whether it is possible to prevent any more executions of innocent people. A moratorium on executions is the only way to guarantee that another innocent person is not executed in the short term. Texas will have to seriously debate abolishing the death penalty to guarantee that another innocent person is never again executed.

Governor Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles were provided a report written by fire expert Gerald Hurst before Willingham's execution that cast considerable doubt on the conclusion that the fire was arson. They ignored Hurst's report. Now, they have a responsibility to take action to ensure that Texas does not execute another innocent person.

Anonymous said...

Is Gerald Hurst's report availible online anywhere?
I'd like to see just exactly what the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Perry's office were provided.

Anonymous said...

Reading the previous posts to an earlier article related to this case, I always have found it interesting when commenters will claim that Willingham (or whoever) wasn't proven "actually" innocent just that the evidence wasn't sufficient to find them guilty (or in this case to prove the required elements of the crime of arson - no crime, no guilt.). My problem is that I have always accepted the premise that you are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. No ifs, ands or buts. You can't prove I sped through the intersection, I'm innocent of speeding from a legal standpoint. End of story. Am I missing some other legal concept that comes into play (other than the moral argument, etc.)? Thanks in advance.

Raoul said...

My Yankee friends pronounce "Waco" as "Whacko," and I correct them. But after reading the Hon. JJ's "hand-washing" comments,maybe I'm the one that's wrong. No, I know too many many good people there who do not buy his pious malarky.

Charles said...

Corsicana paper shows picture of the judge. I was hoping to see a picture of his wife!

Leonard said...

You can't prove I sped through the intersection, I'm innocent of speeding from a legal standpoint. End of story. Am I missing some other legal concept that comes into play (other than the moral argument, etc.)?

Legally this man had a fair trail in which he was convicted and sentenced according to law. The conviction and sentence were upheld at ever level of appeal. So legally the State of Texas had authority to execute this man. End of story.

The moral argument is the only reason you are even reading about this execution so many years after the fact. Morally it would be a terrible thing to execute a father who lost his three children in an accidental house fire. On the other hand, it is not at all terrible to execute a man who murdered his three children by intentionally burning them alive. This is the reason why it matters that Willingham was actually guilty or actually innocent.

Anonymous said...

Raoul, Waco, no matter how you pronounce it, is not Corsicana.

Rage Judicata said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rage Judicata said...

So legally the State of Texas had authority to execute this man. End of story.

There is more to "law" than slavish procedural due process. Your argument is the same as Chuck Rosenthal's, when he argued before the Supreme Court of the United States that it was OK for a state to execute a man who was actually innocent, because he had had his day in court.

I applaud your moral v. immoral argument, and would urge ADA's across the country to get a sense of morality, but if a man has had a trial based on fraudulent evidence, or where evidence was not disclosed that should have been, there is more than a moral issue. His trial was anything but proper, even under the strictest interpretation of procedural due process.

Karo said...

It is difficult to judge old science by modern standards.

Bloodletting was a common medical practice for over a thousand years but now we consider it barbaric.

One day, maybe soon, we'll feel the same way about chemotherapy. The practice injecting cancer patient with poison that is, on average, more poisonous to cancerous cells than normal cells is a practice ripe for future charges of barbarism but for today it is often the best cure available.

Rage Judicata said...

It is difficult to judge old science by modern standards.

Oh, and doesn't that just conveniently wash our hands of the whole issue?

The problem is that prosecutors and judges refuse to advance or admit where old science was always junk science. In some counties, they'll even continue to use the old science as long as possible.

Quit rationalizing.

Karo said...

If I get cancer I will definitely take the chemo even though I know it will eventually be replaced by something much better that makes chemo looks ridiculous. I bet you’d make the same choice.

Anonymous said...

Absolute nonsense, have you actually read any of the background on this case? This is not a case of old science vs new, but is in fact a case of no science vs science.

The state's experts were little more than shaman reciting the mythology handed down by thier fathers.
Of course they testified to the scientific basis of their observations up untill the decision in MICHIGAN MILLERS v BENFIELD wich held them to the Daubert standard. Their fall back posistion became "the testimony of their expert was not based on scientific principles but rather was based on his years of experience, and on his skill and experience-based observations"

It was well understood before we killed this man that that the standard used to convict him was not much different than evidence used in Salem some three hundred years prior. The state chose to kill him in spite of this fact.

Texans deserve an answer as to reasons Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles allowed this to happen. Why did they dismiss the science or did they simply kill him in spite of it?

Tamar said...

Having zero legal background other than a fierce personal commitment to upholding justice, I just finished reading the Willingham case in The New Yorker. Based on all of Hurst's findings invalidating the previous evidence of arson, it seems clear on every count that an innocent man was put to death. One detail that wasn't addressed: the upstairs space heater, which was determined to be the cause of the fire, was found with the switch in the 'off' position. Does anyone have further information about this?

Anonymous said...

The modern scientific review of the old testimony does not prove this was not a case of arson.

The only thing modern science says is that the testimony overstates the confidence in the finding of arson. So where the testimony said "we found X and that definitely means Y" a modern arson investigation should say "we found X and that might mean Y, but it could also mean Z."

That’s it. Alternative explanations for physical evidence and the arson investigator's observations.

This does not prove it was not arson. This does not prove the guy was innocent. The only thing this proves is that a modern arson investigation would attach less certainty to these particular pieces of evidence. It is also quite possible that a modern arson investigation would have uncovered other evidence of guilt. These things would be clear to you if you remember that the writer of the piece in the New Yorker has a clear agenda that is evident by the amount of other damning non-forensic evidence that was omitted from the story, including evidence of the viscious criminal character of the executed man.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:31, read the New Yorker piece. There was more wrong with this case than just mythologized testimony from arson "experts."

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"The modern scientific review of the old testimony does not prove this was not a case of arson."

First we should adress the issue of moderninity. NFPA 921, is the standard for fire investigation.
ANSI, adopted NFPA 921 as one of their standards as far back as the original edition in 1992.

A scientific review of the evidence concluded it was not arson.
"Negative corpus evidence is considered an unacceptable evidentiary basis for arson. When the ignition source cannot be ascertained, the proper classification of the incident is "undetermined." "
Undetermined does not equate to arson. If the cause is undetermined there is no arson.
The evidencery standard you suggest, throw shit at the wall and see if it stcks, was the standard at Salem. How can we prove they were not witches?

A scientific review of the states experts testimony proves that it was not factual. I would hope we can agree that its imcumbent opon the state to provide factual testimony.
Had Mr. Willingham effective assistance of counsile, they would have challenged these experts.
Had Mr. Willingham effective assistance of counsile, they would have appealed based upon the nonfactual testimony introduced at the trial.

We are told of the millions spent insuring that the rights of those convicted of capital crimes are actually guilty, yet it fell to Mr. Willingham's cousin to find an expert to review the case pro-bono. Mr. Willingham did not have effective assistance of counsile.

"The only thing modern science says is that the testimony overstates the confidence in the finding of arson. So where the testimony said "we found X and that definitely means Y" a modern arson investigation should say "we found X and that might mean Y, but it could also mean Z.""

No, a scientific review of the testimony shows that it was unaccurate and unreliable.

"Admission of expert testimony is governed by Texas Rule of Evidence 702.4 When addressing the admissibility of expert testimony, the trial court’s "first task is to determine whether the testimony is sufficiently reliable and relevant to help the jury in reaching accurate results." Kelly v. State, 824 S.W.2d 568, 572 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992). Naturally, testimony which is unreliable or irrelevant would not assist a juror in understanding the evidence or determining a fact in issue, as is required by Rule 702."

Anonymous said...

I just read the New Yorker piece without glancing at the date of publication and was convinced it was just a reprint of that other arson death penalty case I read years ago, until the author wrote "freakishly similar case", referring to Willis.

The fact that both moved their cars after escaping the burning house would seem to be strangely coincendental I suppose. But other than that and a few other details there is nothing freakish about these similarities accept that everyone knew about the Willis case and ignored it, allowing Willingham to be murdered.

I've said it before; I'm just goddamned glad I don't live in the f--king state anymore.

Anonymous said...

...evidence of the viscious (sic) criminal character of the executed man.

There was his record of theft and a few other minor offenses at a young age. There was testimony that he hit his wife.

Mostly the evidence came from one of the arson investigators who saw his posters of Iron Maiden and Led Zepplin and concluded he was some demon. Then two forensic psychiatrists who never even met him, much less evaluated him - picked up on the theme and further demonized him. Lots of people are fans of these rock bands. As kids, many of them draw the same artwork that is on the covers of their albums and even get tattoos depicting them. It's quite common.

When children die people naturally are horrified, their emotions get in the way of their better sense and if they see someone to blame it on, rightly or wrongly, they will go to any lengths to extract vengeance. That's what the case is really about.

Anonymous said...

Found this blog after reading about the case in the New Yorker.

After reading the entries here, I did a little research. While I did not find Hurst's report, I did find this http://truthinjustice.org/ArsonReviewReport.pdf

Now I'm no fire investigator but 4 of the 5 who wrote the report are - I'll side with them.

I'm not a supporter of the death penalty but if a state is going enforce it (IMHO) it should be the hardest thing to complete.

It appears that in this case, doubt was raised multiple times & ignored without much reason.

Anonymous said...

The new science is all second-hand. The new science is only reviewing the findings reported by the old arson investigators.

If the modern investigators had a time machine and werre able to travel back to actually examine the scene they would find even more evidence of arson that was missed by the old arson investigators. The science is better now at detecting arson, not worse.

This scenario is more likely to be true than your fantasy of executing an innocent man because there was other, non-forensic evidence of guilt. He testified that the older child awakened him from a nap to alert him of the fire but somehow he didnt bother to get that same little kid out of the house. Neighbors also reported that he came out of the house before it was engulfed in flames and refused to even attempt to help his three children.

emily said...

10:51 said:
If the modern investigators had a time machine and werre able to travel back to actually examine the scene they would find even more evidence of arson that was missed by the old arson investigators. The science is better now at detecting arson, not worse.

Maybe they would find evidence of arson, maybe they would not. As you say, we can't go back and know. But the point is that capital punishment is only defensible if you can be 100% sure. Does it not make you at all uneasy, 10:51, that the evidence upon which he was executed was hackneyed? Doesn't the possibility of his innocence make you at all wary?

Anonymous said...

No. Even if he didn't start the fire he had an obligation to save his children. He didn't bother trying. Good riddance.

Anonymous said...

He had it coming
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_enSKXuOdo&feature=related

Anonymous said...

The same neighbors that changed theior story after they saw that police were looking at the father.

The"new science" commented that the investigators made several errors - even by standards at the time.

Mr Vasquez made several assurtions that tragically wrong & he should have known. The jury accepted him as an expert which was truly not the case.

The neighbors contradicted themselves from original comments about the Willingham's behavior. They & the Fire Marshall had in their mind what someone "should" do in this situation.

And no - no one "has it coming" or deserves it. What an attitude...

Jonathan said...

"Even if he didn't start the fire he had an obligation to save his children. He didn't bother trying. Good riddance."

That's not clear at all. First, he claims to have been awoken by his older daughter screaming -- not by her e.g. being physically near him. Second, if the room the children were in was in "pre-flashover" but getting close to it, by the time he got to the bedroom door, the radiant heat would have been incredible -- remember, minutes or less later the radiant heat from the ceiling, if the flashover theory is right, would have been enough to ignite the entire room! In the "Lime Street" fire, the room went from the initial "accidental" start of the fire to being "untenable" in 2-3 minutes, and flashed-over in less than 5. If we assume his child woke up and started screaming for him at minute 1 or 2, and that it took him another minute to wake up and see what was up, it is entirely plausible that by the time he got to the bedroom door, he could reasonably think that there was no way to enter the room to attempt to effect a rescue and survive.

Perhaps one does have an obligation to risk death -- or even to die -- trying to save ones children. But his failure on that count wasn't what he was convicted of.

The issue here isn't that we *know* with certainty that Willingham was innocent - the key bits of evidence to figure out exactly what happened are lost now. The issue is that we do know with near-certainty that the evidence used to convict him was inadequate to the task, and that any reasonably fair review of the evidence could not support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And we know that this was known *before* he was executed. And that, it seems to me, is an obvious failure of our justice system, whether or not we can now prove his innocence.

dSquib said...

RE: the "good riddance" comment, I find it quite amazing the ability of people posed with new information or arguments that rebut the foundation of their claims or beliefs, to simply minimise the importance of that foundation in regards the formation of their opinion, and hop onto some other rationale, however weak, i.e. Willingham deserved to be executed for negligence or even being insufficiently brave (about which one should heed Dr. Gerald Hurst's comment featured in the New Yorker piece about people having no conception of what it's actually like to be in a fire).*

I'd recommend this article -- http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1133 -- as a good overview of the phenomena.

* Even so the police chaplain at the scene noted that Willingham DID try to run back to his kids, and had to be wrestled and handcuffed for doing so, giving the chaplain a black eye in the process.

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