Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shoddy forensics + jailhouse snitch = possible false conviction, execution in capital arson case

The Chicago Tribune reports that a consultant hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission found the arson testimony that secured the conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was later executed for a fire that killed his children, was shoddy and unscientific ("Cameron Todd Willingham: Expert says fire for which father was executed was not arson," Aug. 25). According to the Tribune:
In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule a deadly house fire was an arson -- a finding that led to the murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in Texas, home to the country's busiest death chamber. If the commission reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.

Indeed, the report concludes there was no evidence to determine that the December 1991 fire was even set, and it leaves open the possibility the blaze that killed three children was an accident and there was no crime at all -- the same findings found in a Chicago Tribune investigation of the case published in December 2004.
The report concluded that the state fire marshall in the case:
had "limited understanding" of fire science. The fire marshal "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created," he wrote.

The marshal's findings, he added, "are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."

Over the past five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation's top fire scientists -- first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project, and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson.

The only other evidence of significance against Willingham was another inmate who testified that Willingham had confessed to him. Jailhouse snitches are viewed with skepticism in the justice system, so much so that some jurisdictions have restrictions against their use.
Sloppy forensics plus a jailhouse snitch: That's a recipe for a false conviction if I ever heard one. There are many dozens or possibly hundreds of others currently sitting in Texas prisons who were convicted based on the same shoddy testimony by arson investigators as Willingham. The Innocence Project of Texas is presently reviewing old arson cases looking for possibly viable actual innocence claims, so these findings should bolster their efforts to secure official reconsideration of those convictions.

39 comments:

Regina said...

He sure does seem like a nice fellow:
Witnesses testified that Willingham was verbally and physically abusive toward his family, and that at one time he beat his pregnant wife in an effort to cause a miscarriage. A friend of Willingham's testified that Willingham once bragged about brutally killing a dog.

Even if he didnt set the fire I'm not sure if its fair to call him "innocent."


Willingham had a history of committing crimes, including burglary, grand larceny and car theft.



Also:

"Neighbors testified that Willingham came outdoors as the house began smoldering, before flames were visible from the outside. He first pushed his car away to protect it from being burned, then "crouched down" in the front yard. Despite their pleas, Willingham refused to go into the house to attempt to rescue the children, they said. A firefighter testified that Willingham showed no grief over his children's deaths, but became upset upon discovering that his dart board was burned. A neighbor also testified that on the day after the fire, Willingham and his wife were going through the debris while playing music and laughing.

Maybe the arson investigation was incompetent but even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Regina, nobody used the word "innocent" but you, setting up a straw man. I said his was a false conviction and execution.

That said, your attitude of "he may not have committed this crime but I'm sure he's guilty of something so he deserved to die, anyway" is a repulsive grotesquery, not a serious argument. The theft crimes you list from Wikipedia don't merit the death penalty anywhere but in some absurdist, punishment-happy fantasy world that I'm glad not to live in.

Anonymous said...

Actually, arson convictions are very rare. Cases often aren't solved, and convictions are hard to obtain even when defendants are charged. Even what may seem like open and shut cases--upside-down on his mortgage homeowner leaving house with gas can just before fire detected--may not be declined by insurance companies. That said, good forensics are a must.

Scott Cobb said...

Todd Willigham was innocent of the crime for which he was executed five years ago. Texas judges need to stop setting execution dates until the next session of the Legislature enacts an official moratorium on executions and sets up a commission to examine the entire Texas death penalty system.

Regina said...

Even if the scientific evidence was wrong, that doesn't mean it wasn't arson. Willingham's behavior at the time also supports the fact that he set this fire on purpose.

Grits your implication was clear even if you didn't use the word "innocent" but don't take my word for it, just look at the understanding evident in the words of commentor Scott Cobb.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Regina, when you put words in quotes and attribute them to someone, try to make sure they actually said them. It makes for a more productive debate.

As for Willingham, as much as you know about the case you also know there's no way in hell he'd ever have been convicted without the false forensic testimony.

Anonymous said...

Grits,
I think the principal point of Regina's post relates to how much information is typically left out of these biased media accounts concerning death penalty cases. The liberal media (Chicago Tribune especially) and anti-death penalty establishment continue to search for the "holy grail" i.e., and actual innocent who was executed.

Sure, it makes for great reading to complain about faulty scientific proof which may or may not have contributed to Willingham's conviction. Without talking to the jurors, we'll never know for sure what their verdict was based upon.

The point here is why didn't the media tell us about this other evidence noted in Regina's post? When considered outside of the context of the other evidence presented at trial, the findings reported in the Tribune article can easily cause one to jump to the conclusion that Willingham was "innocent" of the crime he was executed for. On the other hand, when one is presented all of the evidence considered by the jury in this case, a far different picture is painted.

R. Shackleford said...

Just because some guy is an ahole doesn't mean it's ok to falsely convict him and send him to the needle dance. If we went around executing every ahole in Texas, we'd live in a ghost state. I oppose the death penalty because of exactly this sort of thing. A man's life is too precious to be handled by such a flawed system.

Brian McGiverin said...

8/26/2009 11:15:00 AM

The flaws in an abbreviated account of a trial cut both ways. Neighbors may have testified to this or that, but there's no record of the cross examination. I don't suppose you've ever seen My Cousin Vinny? If cross examination wasn't an important part of fleshing out a witness's testimony, the right of confrontation wouldn't have been enshrined in the constitution.

Pirate Rothbard said...

8:26,

Your points are well stated.

Personally, I wouldn't have a problem getting rid of the death penalty tomorrow. But if we're going to discuss one particular case, we need to be honest and not hide the facts. Posts like Regina are not attempting to look morality, rather than the legality, of executions.

Who was Willingham? Did he really steal cars? What did he burglarize, homes or businesses? History shows many examples where it was appropriate to kill someone for theft, such as horse thieves in the Wild West.

I think Grits and Shackleford should consider whether their oh-so noble and cultured view of punishment is really better than the common sense view. Most of us believe that there are a small number of people(not most) who really are "assholes" and we shed no tears when they get what they have coming.

Pirate Rothbard said...

whoops, guess my 3 year old distracted me. I meant,

"posts like Regina's are attempting to look at the morality, rather than the legality"

dudleysharp said...

As Brian McGiverin stated, cross examination is important.

RE: See Regina

In the public square, Regina is providing a cross examination substitute, by including what an often anti death penalty biased media fails to provide.

For example:

Here is a compilation of various reviews of the case. (1)
Cameron Todd Willingham said his wife went out shopping and left him with the children.

Willingham alleged he was asleep late in the morning, Dec. 23, 1991. when his two year old, Amber woke him. He saw smoke, jumped out of bed, and ordered Amber out of the house. Willingham said he tried to get to the twins' room, couldn't get past the flames and ran to get help. His house had no phone.

(Sharp: Is it credible that any adult would leave a 2 year old to their own devices to exit a house on fire, when that sole adult had no idea as to the extent of the fire?)

It is alleged that, with the fire, Willingham was trying to cover up abuse of the children.

Killed were Amber Louis Kuykendall, 2, Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham, one-year-old twins.

Neighbors testified that Willingham came outdoors as the house began smoldering, before flames were visible from the outside.

Despite their pleas, Willingham refused to go into the house to attempt to rescue the children, they said.

He first pushed his car away to protect it from being burned, then "crouched down" in the front yard.

"The only way for me to get back into the house was to jump back into the flames," Willinham said. "I wouldn't do that."

Inside, Willingham's 3 young children were dying. It was 2 days before Christmas 1991.

When firefighters arrived at the burning 5-bedroom house on Corsicana's south side, the man who lived there, Willingham, was outside.

Willingham’s neighbors testified that when the fire “blew out” the windows, Willingham “hollered about his car” and ran to move it away from the fire to avoid its being damaged.

"He was engaged in pushing his car out of the way so it wouldn't be scorched by the flames," John Jackson, the prosecutor in the subsequent criminal case, recalled.

The testimony at trial demonstrates that Willingham did not grieve the loss of his three children.

A firefighter testified that Willingham showed no grief over his children's deaths, but became upset upon discovering that his dart board was burned.

Willingham's claims of heroic effort to save the girls were not borne out by his unscathed escape with little smoke in his lungs.

Willingham argued that his ex-wife's boyfriend started the blaze.

Willingham suggested a lantern lamp dumped fluid when a shelf collapsed inside the house and caught fire or his oldest daughter, who was "fascinated with everything," accidentally set off the blaze. "Either that or someone came in with the intent to kill me and the children," he said.

The testimony at trial demonstrates that Willingham neither showed remorse for his actions nor grieved the loss of his three children.

dudleysharp said...

So far, none of the reports, highly critical of the trial's arson forensic testimony, excludes arson as the cause of the fire.

The basis of the criticism is that the arson testimony at trial was extremely flawed and that the basis of the arson finding was, wholly, without scientific merit, both at the time of the trial and today.

Stated another way, the arson "experts" were no such thing. Pathetic and inexcusable come to mind.

I am not sure if it is possible, today, to reach a conclusive finding that the fire was or was not arson. We will see.

Media reports stated: "Willingham suggested a lantern lamp dumped fluid when a shelf collapsed inside the house and caught fire or his oldest daughter, who was "fascinated with everything," accidentally set off the blaze."

Did evidence show any support for a lamp oil fire? If so, who lit the lamp and left it lit well into the morning?

Or did Willingham make this statement, because he lit the fire using lamp oil and wanted to give a plausible explanation if it was found that was what started the fire.

Did his wife testify as to a possible lamp fluid fire?

Where's a trial transcript when you need it?

j said...

1. The event which caused the three childrens' deaths was the third attempt by Todd Willingham to kill his children established by the evidence. He had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages;

2. The “well-established burns” suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself;

3. Blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the homicide revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke, contrary to his statement which detailed “rescue attempts;”

4. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination. Such opportunity was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner;

5. Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. His violent nature was further established by evidence of his vicious attacks on animals which is common to violent sociopaths;

6. Witness statements established that Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, “You're not the one who was supposed to die.” (The origin of the fire occured in the infant twins bedroom) and;

7. Any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.


http://www.corsicanadailysun.com/opinion/local_story_241210447.html

dudleysharp said...

And j, who I presume is the judge, and former DA who prosecuted Willingham, also provides much need cross examilnation in the public square.

Scott Cobb said...

In the Sept 7, 2009 edition of the New Yorker David Grann comprehensively examines the Todd Willingham case in which an innocent person was executed by Texas. The proven execution of an innocent person means the end of the death penalty in the United States. Todd Willingham was innocent and Texas killed him.

Governor Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had been given a report before the execution that cast doubt that the fire was arson, but they ignored it.

dudleysharp said...

Scott:

Grann never concluded that Willingham was actually innocent. He can't.

However, he does seem to buy into some falsehoods of anti death penalty folks, re the false claims of actual innocence or exoneration in other cases, without fact checking them. Pretty standard, sadly.

There is, currently, no finding of Willingham's actual innocence. It may be impossible to determine Willingham's actual guilt or innocence, because of the passage of time, as well as the total screwing up of the forensic's by the state.

Anti's, like you have, predictably, already been proclaiming Willingham's actual innocence, while avoiding the additional evidence that points to his actual guilt. Also predictable.

It is the standard, anti death penalty way, with many cases for examples.

Wait to base you conclusions on all of the evidence.

The final chapter has not been written.

dudleysharp said...

bad link, above

"Willingham guilt never in doubt", Guest Commentary, Hon. John Jackson, Guest Columnist, Corsicana Daily Sun, August 29, 2009 08:00 pm,

http://www.corsicanadailysun.com/opinion/local_story_241210447.html?keyword=topstory

dudleysharp said...

To: Scott Cobb:

I sent Grann the above reference, as well as referred him to this blog and also sent to him:

The 130 (now 135) death row "innocents" scam
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/03/04/fact-checking-issues-on-innocence-and-the-death-penalty.aspx

Anonymous said...

He was repeatedly offered the opportunity to cop a guilty plea and get the death penalty waived. Was that the act of a guilty man?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...He was repeatedly offered the opportunity to cop a guilty plea and get the death penalty waived. Was that the act of a guilty man? 9/01/2009 11:54:00 AM

Are you on crack? Before trial, in concession to the family, the DA offered a life sentence for a plea of guilty. He refused it. And yes, it does sound like the act of a guilty of man. They think they are so smart - so superior, that they are going to beat the charges. It happens all the time and is another sign that they are sociopaths. Shame on you for lying.

dudleysharp said...

Time to face the truth in the Willingham case

http://deathpenaltyblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2009/09/time-to-face-the-truth-in-the.html

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Dudley, perhaps it's time for you and others convinced of Willingham's guilt to refute the New Yorker piece in detail instead of aiming only to rebut anonymous blog commenters.

dudleysharp said...

Grits (Scott):

I think your a smart guy.

I have never voiced an opinion as to Willingham's guilt or innocence.

So, don't make up an opinion for me.

Nor do I, secretly, hold an opinion one way or another.

I don't know.

I have been concerned about this case for some time.

A lot of folks have jumped on the innocence bandwagon, with only evidence that the forensics was bad, indeed.

Bad forensics doesn't tell us what good forensics would have said had it been employed in the original investigation.

Good forensics may have found for arson and it may not have.

I am not sure we will ever know.

I am reluctant to jump in with an opinion, at this juncture, because of lack of objective knowledge.

Not only have I read the New Yorker piece, as noted above, I also sent the author all of the material I have posted here, as well as I have directed him to your blog.

As you likely know, it is not uncommon for the media to jump into the innocence jambory, with irresitable enthusiasm and little objective investigation.

For examples:

Roger Keith Coleman
Ruben Cantu
Roger O'Dell
Larry Griffin
Sacco and Vanzetti
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

or the blanket

The 130 (now 135) death row "innocents" scam
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/03/04/fact-checking-issues-on-innocence-and-the-death-penalty.aspx

Andreas said...

"And yes, it does sound like the act of a guilty of man"

Funny how this is identical to how a truly innocent man would act as well.

dudleysharp said...

Grits (Scott), you wrote to Regina:

"when you put words in quotes and attribute them to someone, try to make sure they actually said them. It makes for a more productive debate."

Good point. Something we should all try to do.

dudleysharp said...

Grits (Scott):

Next time an anti death penalty person, say Scott Cobb, says Willingham is innocent, why don't you ask him to prove it.

And, let's be honest and not do the "legally innocent until proven guilty" stuff.

I think we can all be honest enough to admit we are speaking of "actual innocence".

Do you agree that "actual innocnce" is the real subject?

Anonymous said...

Funny how this is identical to how a truly innocent man would act as well.

No, it's not the same at all.

mrpinky2 said...

Grann did indeed conclude that he was innocent. He says it outright in the http://www.newyorker.com/online/2009/09/07/090907on_audio_grann.

And I agree.

Andreas said...

Anonymous: I assume you're the same person who wrote the following:

"Are you on crack? Before trial, in concession to the family, the DA offered a life sentence for a plea of guilty. He refused it. And yes, it does sound like the act of a guilty of man."

So you're essentially saying that an innocent man would take the DAs offer of a life sentence and admit to killing his own kids? Please. There is nothing in this one act that proves his guilt. Neither of course that he is innocent.

Anonymous said...

dudley-moron: "Grann never concluded that Willingham was actually innocent. He can't."

Mr. Dudley-moron, it is the outstanding integrity of David Grann that makes his reporting truly objective.

One can equally well make the counter-claim: "Mr. Dudley-moron can't conclude that Willingham was guilty".

dudleysharp said...

From Gann's New Yorker article.
This was also sent to the New Yorker

The article page number, followed by the article comment, followed by my REPLY

p 9 In recent years, though, questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can be used only in rare instances.

REPLY: I know of no one that thinks any government programs are failsafe.

The 130 "exonerated"

Mr. Gann, please review: The 130 (now 135) death row "innocents" scam
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/03/04/fact-checking-issues-on-innocence-and-the-death-penalty.aspx

On the DNA front, Gann says DNA saved 17 death row inmates. Nonsense. First, can Gann show that DNA saved any of those 17. No.

Some reality. Only about 12% of death row inmates have been executed. About 36% have had their cases overturned. Secondly, more directly, I think 8-9 of those 17 had already been taken off death row, prior to the DNA exclusion.

Those were not even subject to execution any more.

Gann could have speculated that innocents are more protected with the death penalty than they are with lesser sentences. But, why would the defense, uh, a reporter do that? Maybe its true.

----------------------

p 9 In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty.

REPLY: Instead of being misleading, why can't Gann fact check and tell us how many of those 13 are actually innocent? Maybe there is a reason why.

Gann, review: "The Death Penalty Debate in Illinois", JJKinsella,6/2000, http://www.dcba.org/brief/junissue/2000/art010600.htm

Yes, some of the reviews within the Kinsella article are very incomplete. My point is the 13 were not exonerated. And Gann just used it, anyway. Is fact checking so bad?
-----------------

p 9 In 1993, Ruben Cantu was executed in Texas for fatally shooting a man during a robbery. Years later, a second victim, who survived the shooting, told the Houston Chronicle that he had been pressured by police to identify Cantu as the gunman, even though he believed Cantu to be innocent. Sam Millsap, the district attorney in the case, who had once supported capital punishment (“I’m no wild-eyed, pointy-headed liberal”), said that he was disturbed by the thought that he had made a mistake.

REPLY: Fact checking would be nice.

Ruben Cantu: In the Matter of Juan Moreno: Investigation Relating to The State of Texas v. Ruben Cantu, Cause No. 85-CR-1303, 6/26/2007
http://www.bexar.org/da2/body_pages/morenocantuinvestigation.pdf

Instead of playing the bluff, using Gann's imagination style of reporting, where Gann wrote that Millsap "thought he had made a mistake.", why not be a little less nebulous and suggestive. How about - One could safely call Millsap an anti death penalty activist, who had radically changed his statements on Cantu. Explain that Millsap has gone from Cantu was innocent to, well maybe, he didn't get adequate due process, or various versions of that. Gann wasn't trying to get us to imagine that Millsap thought Cantu was actually innocent, was he? Millsap "thought he had made a mistake."

And Gann left all of that out because . . . he only had 17 pages for his article?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Dudley-moron,

A man was executed (murdered?) by the state of Texas primarily because of falsified scientific evidence, and you're still trying to defend this as a "fair trial"?

You need to stop thinking with rear end!

Anonymous said...

Regina's postulate: "Since he wasn't a nice guy, it's okay to murder him."

Regina, if only we kept a tab of all your mishaps - it would help push your case towards DR!

Anonymous said...

So you're essentially saying that an innocent man would take the DAs offer of a life sentence and admit to killing his own kids?

I didn't post that - you did.

Andreas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andreas said...

Anonymous, all I did was follow the logic of your previous statement.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, all I did was follow the logic of your previous statement.

No, you didn't. And I don't have time for your sleazy games.

Andreas said...

I'd love to see you explain how come rather than just stating that I'm wrong. Judging from your replies though, I doubt you're interested in a sound and rational discussion.