The recent flurry of attention began thanks to a new report from an expert commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission and an extensive article in the New Yorker by David Gann, which vetted the arson testimony and other evidence in the case. The prosecutor, now a judge, offered a retort in the Corsicana Sun. Gann responded to the prosecutor's column here. Gann also points out several writers who have already responded to the prosecutor's op-ed.
The Sun published another rebuttal story titled "No Doubts" that even quoted Willingham's trial attorney proclaiming his guilt. By contrast, they didn't speak to Willingham's Waco-based appellate attorney, Walter Reaves, who always believed Willingham was innocent and feels vindicated by the new forensic report and the New Yorker piece, he says on his blog.
The Texas Moratorium Network is taking the high road, offering up a post titled "'Total idiots' in Corsicana strike back at scientific reports that Todd Willingham fire was not arson." A blogger at The Seventh Sense sees the former prosecutor's column as evidence of "the poor quality of the judiciary in Texas."
It's easy to see why death penalty opponents have latched onto the Willingham case. At the Agitator, Radley Balko asks this "question for supporters of capital punishment: Does Willingham’s case make you rethink your position? If not, how many more cases of an executed innocent person would it take to make you change your mind?" That's a powerful argument. Some will find it persuasive. Not enough to abolish the death penalty, I'd venture, but perhaps enough to further restrict it. I think the aspect of the case that may help more people, though, is to debunk forever the propagandistic wives' tales upon which all arson "forensics" was based before the mid-'90s.
Doug Berman wondered why the usual pro-death penalty writers have been silent regarding these new developments, but Kent Scheidegger at Crime and Consequences said the Willingham news was not the kind of major event that demanded immediate comment. (I'll betcha that wouldn't be the case if the investigator came back and determined the fire was arson!)
Kent's opinion was not shared by Barry Scheck writing at the Huffington Post, who offered up a column titled "Innocent but Executed." Defense attorney Mark Bennett out of Houston ponders the "criminal liability for judicial murders in Texas" as the law might apply to Willingham's case. Bob Herbert chimed in to emphasize how unreliable was the jailhouse snitch in the case. Change.org says Willingham was convicted because he was poor. Digby says there are some things the law is incompetent to do. The Agonist says justice was torched in Texas. Tom Head at his About.com Civil Liberties blog says this is the second innocent man executed in Texas. Defense attorney Paul Kennedy says:
The [New Yorker] article also makes me wonder how much longer we will have to put up with pseudo-scientific evidence such as bite mark analysis, handwriting analysis, tire tread analysis and all the other expert testimony that is "more art than science." When will our judiciary finally understand that criminal trial work is not merely an academic exercise? How many times will we have to hear the Court of Criminal Appeals state that factual innocence alone is insufficient to overturn a conviction?In addition, Stand Down Texas has been pretty good about rounding up routine coverage. I'm sure there's much more out there I haven't seen. If you've read other interesting discussions of the Willingham case, leave a link in the comments.
MORE: A reader points me to this piece by Dahlia Lithwick at Slate. See also commentary from Dave Mann at The Contrarian, who points to this NPR coverage. From the Snitching Blog, see "Of Experts and Snitches."
See prior, related Grits posts:
- Cameron Todd Willingham: Debating his innocence
- Shoddy forensics + jailhouse snitch = possible false conviction, execution, in capital arson case
- Forensic science commission to review Willingham, Moon cases
- Junk arson science helped secure capital murder conviction
- Arson cases fueling innocence debates
- Many arson convictions based on invalid science
- Arson convictions may be next venue for innocence claims
- College to develop screening processes for vetting old arson cases for bad forensic science
- Forensic Science Commission to investigate faulty forensics in Cameron Willingham case