Friday, September 25, 2009

"How does the governor think Willingham killed his kids if not by arson?"

Michael Landauer at the Dallas News Death Penalty Blog poses two absolutely excellent questions about the Cameron Todd Willingham case, where arson testimony used to convict Willingham was later debunked by modern science after his execution for killing his children:

"How does the governor think Willingham killed his kids if not by arson?," and "Why is the prosecutor who took Willingham's life smiling?"

The question for the governor referenced this story where Perry actually put air quotes around "latter-day supposed experts" when describing to reporters why he still thought Todd Willingham was really guilty, something he said he believed even if the conclusion of arson was wrong. Scott Cobb noted in the comments that:

The author of the report to the Texas Forensic Science Commission was Dr Craig Beyler. He is chairman of the International Association for Fire Safety Science.

Dr. Beyler holds a B.S. degree in fire protection engineering from the University of Maryland, a B.S. in civil engineering from Cornell, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from Cornell, an M.Sc. in fire safety engineering from the University of Edinburgh, and a Ph.D. in engineering science from Harvard.

And there's an increasingly long and distinguished list of others who reached the same conclusions, including before Todd Willingham was executed, which oh by the way happened on Rick Pery's watch. If the governor continues this attitude of stubborn defiance, it may be a big enough deal to make "innocence" a gubernatorial campaign issue in 2010.

I particularly love the use of "latter-day"! It's one thing for GOP candidates in competitive primaries to disavow belief in evolution, but I've never heard that extended to arson science. I wonder if he subscribes to 18th Century medical practices as well? Sing along, everybody: Give me that old time science, it's good enough for me!

Head over to Michael's shop for the low-down on the smiling prosecutor.

40 comments:

Karo said...

There is no proof it wasn't arson.

ryanpaige said...

There's no proof it was arson.

Anonymous said...

The "Gov" has OD'd on hairspray, which, BTW, is an accelerant.

Mike Howard said...

Karo perfectly sums up the prevailing attitude that your average American has on exonerations and claims of actual innocence.

ryanpaige said...

There's no proof that Rick Perry and John Jackson didn't kill those kids.

Anonymous said...

I've been mulling over an investment in having a TeeShirt made in anticipation of Perry losing the primary or general election. This display of stupidity and callousness on his part has moved me closer to having the shirt manufactured.

Karo said...

Mike I have no problem with exonerations based on evidence or the confession of the real killer.

In the the Willingham case modern scientists can only say that they would not make a finding of arson based on the remaining evidence. They can't tell us how the fire started, they can't say that it WASN'T arson, they can't say why Willingham confessed, they can't explain why he didn't even try to save the kids, they can't explain Willingham's nonsensical testimondy about why didn't at least manage to get the 2 year old out of the house and so on.

There is a big differnce between saying that modern investigators find the forensic evidence inconclusive and saying that the guy was actually innocent. I have no problem with DNA exonerations.

Rage Judicata said...

Karo: You have it backwards. Convictions are supposed to be based on evidence.

Karo said...

The conviction was based on forensic and testimonial evidence.

These dudes came along and examined the remaining evidence almost 20 years later and they say, based on their modern techniques, they wouldn't have had enough proof to declare arson because there are alternate explanations for various observations.

So maybe if the trial was today a good defense lawyer could create reasonable doubt but maybe if thte trial was today modern forensics would have found other evidence of arson. There is nothing to support the notion that this guy was actually innocent.

Rage Judicata said...

Actually, Jackson, who prosecuted him, made several statements in addition to the forensic junk science that he says indicates guilt. Things like "he beat his wife," which his wife denies, and "He blocked the back door with a fridge," which was there for years, nad "there were bottles of lighter fluid at the front door but no grill" when we know that the firemen moved the grill to get in, and "he didn't try to get back in the house" when we know that a reporter at the scene said that he saw firefighters having to physically restrain him from going inside the burning house.

Look, we get it. You think new knowledge should not overturn old convictions. I'm sure you're also OK with the state being able to execute a person who is actually innocent, because he had his day in court, like Chuck Rosenthal once argued to SCOTUS. There are lots of prosecutors just like you, who are not interested in opening old wounds and who slavishly parrot procedural due process when it's obvious that a wrongful conviction has occurred.

Thank God your sort of ignorance (or worse, willful indifference), is falling out of favor.

Karo said...

Rage perhaps you missed this:

"I have no problem with exonerations based on evidence or the confession of the real killer."

and perhaps you also missed this:

"I have no problem with DNA exonerations."

Please drop the comparisons to Mr. Rosenthal. I read the transcript of the oral arguments and, frankly, Old Chucky embarassed himself, Harris county, and the great State of Texas. He didn't even seem to realize when the evil Judge Scalie was trying to help him.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Karo, there's no proof it wasn't arson, but much more importantly, there's no proof at all that it was. There's also no proof it wasn't Martians, but it'd be absurd to jump to the conclusion that therefore Martians did it. Or the Governor, as 4:28 points out. What's his alibi, since absence of evidence is now (according to you) as damning as its presence?

If you listen to the Nightline interview with the fire investigator, the first words out of his mouth were that they knew it was arson because they eliminated accidental causes. (That's one of the key, debunked assumptions eliminated in the NFPA-921 revisions of fire science that this investigator wants to buck.) Absence of evidence is his evidence. He was making the same argument you are even back then, it's just that now science has formally insisted that assumption is invalid. The law should, too.

The guy's dead, our opinions about him don't matter. He's gone. But stridently continuing to insist it was arson without ANY evidence IMO contributes to an atmosphere where obviously false convictions are defended on reflex, no evidence required, just turning it into another ritualized culture-war showdown. And that IS a little Rosenthal-esque.

yvette said...

The man was innocent may he rest in peace, but I can see how he got convicted. Texas gets it wrong a lot of the time this state is having more and more people cleared by DNA every week so your telling me they have never executed any one who was innocent! The question is how many innocent people have been executed on Governor Perrys watch.

Anonymous said...

Karo's attitude reflects the attitude many jurors in Texas have when the walk into the courtroom. The defendant not innocent until proven guilty. They are innocent unless proven innocent.

Rage Judicata said...

I wasn't comparing Jackson to Rosenthal. I was comparing you to Rosenthal.

There's plenty of evidence. You want them to prove a negative, which is that there was no arson. First of all, there was no real proof that there was an arson, and second, there is plenty of science-based evidence showing that it was not. You saying there's no evidence shows that you have no interest in looking at the reviews of this case honestly.

ryanpaige said...

The problem with "we don't know what it was, so it must be arson" is obvious, but now that the "evidence" that supported the arson theory has been debunked, there are other potential causes that were dismissed because the investigators were sure they had evidence of arson that one can point to.

There's the space heater that was in the kids' room (and it wasn't just Willingham saying that one of the kids had gotten in trouble for messing with the space heater). There's the electrical that people other than just Willingham have said crackled, etc. And so on.

The main reason those potential causes were eliminated is because the investigators way back then saw what they deemed was unmistakable evidence of arson. That unmistakable evidence was wrong.

Unfortunately, we can't go back and fix that error and investigate other causes, but since we know the main reason those other causes were dismissed was because the investigator falsely assumed arson, those other potential causes are back in play AND, given the absence of any remaining evidence of arson, are far more compelling potential explanations.

The remaining "evidence" is all armchair psychology that sits on shakier footing than the original arson findings.

ryanpaige said...

And if Willingham were still alive, I think it's a pretty good bet he could've gotten a new trial just like Ernest Willis in a similar case.

A major reason that Jackson and Perry and others are so interested twisting logic in any which way so they can still say Willingham did it is because Willingham has been put to death by the state.

If he was still sitting on death row right now, I doubt they'd be fighting as hard.

This touches on an area of why it's so difficult to find the "smoking gun case" of an innocent person executed by the state that will satisfy everyone (or almost everyone).

I look at a case like the Johnny Frank Garrett case where a compelling case can be made that someone else was responsible for the rape and murder Garrett was executed for (unsigned confession, very similar crime proven to be committed by someone else, unscientific hair analysis being the biggest piece of evidence of guilt, Dr. Ralph Erdmann being the county coroner at the time of the case, etc). And it would be so easy to prove that one way or another with a simple DNA test.

But once Garrett was executed (actually, probably even before that), all the evidence was destroyed. There's no way to test it now. So, even if somebody makes a compelling argument that Garrett didn't do it, it all comes back to "you can't prove it" because DNA is apparently the only thing that prosecutors (except Mike Nifong and, sometimes, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) and the public accept as inviolate.

Karo said...

We'll probably never know for certain exactly what happened but this guy was convicted by a jury who heard evidence from multiple sources, including a jailhouse confession, so it wasn't just the testimony of the arson investigators.

Capital murder convictions are not exactly handed out like candy. Before the trial even starts the process of picking a death-qualified jury is done very carefully and no expense is spared. Even a capital murder conviction doesn't earn you the needle unless the jury makes additional findings of fact beyond guilt vs. innocence. Twelve jurors must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that you are a hopelessly evil bastard who will always be dangerous to others and so basically there is no redeeming value to your life and nothing to mitigate your crime. Seriously a death penalty case is a big deal and there are a lot of checks built into the system to ensure that we only execute people who need really need to be executed.

Carl Sagan famously said the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The claim that Willingham was innocent is an extraordinary claim yet there is no evidence to support this claim. For him to have been innocent, all of the following things must have happened:
1. The appeals process failed.
2. The jury failed.
3. The defense attorney failed.
4. Willingham's implausible explanation for why, on the way out of the house, he passed right by the kid's room WITHOUT ATTEMPTING TO SAVE THEM showed anything less than depraved indifference.
5. Willingham's jailhouse confession was false.
6. His wife was wrong.
7. Witnesses such as neighbors and firemen were wrong.
8. The arson investigation reached the wrong conclusion.

Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? No effin way!

Without new science proving the fire was accidental I'm just not willing to make the leap to declaring this particular man innocent. Sure there might be enough reasonable doubt to earn an acquittal in a retrial, but that is not at all the same thing as actually being innocent.

The new science is silent as to the cause of the fire. The new science offers no proof it was not arson. The new science only says the preserved forensic evidence is insufficient to support a finding of arson.

That's all. The preserved evidence is inconclusive. I don't believe Willingham was innocnet for the same reason I don't believe in bigfoot, homeopathic cures, astrology, zombie Jesus, psychic powers, alien visitors, or Reaganomics.

Now, back to the idea of "extraordinary claims" ... you can turn this around and say it would be extraordinary we have never executed an innocent person.

yvette said...

Its very easy to be convicted of murder in Texas some of the press convince potential jury members before they are picked what is hard is over turning that conviction. Let's see you had a guy convicted of rape and murder when DNA cleared him (it wasn't his DNA) judge Keller refused his appeal said he must of worn a condom! The man was cleared and released but this is what innocent people have to fight against people who cannot admit they get it wrong won't take responsibility.

Anonymous said...

1. The appeals process failed.
2. The jury failed.
3. The defense attorney failed.
In Texas these three things occuring are not extraordinary. They happen more frequently than many would like to admit. Just for example I think we now have close to 40 DNA exonerations where these things failed. They failed in the Timothy Cole case, the Kerry Max Cook case and many, many other cases, not just in Texas but around the country. Saying that someone is guilty just because they can't prove they are innocent shows a lack of critical thinking skills.

Anonymous said...

I say Karo started the fire. Now, Karo, prove you didn't.

Boyness said...

HA HA HA More Rick Perry not caring about the due process of law. Perry is a Texas sized IDIOT who needs to go BAD in the next election. Kinky...Kay Bailey...anyone but Rick Perry!

ryanpaige said...

"1. The appeals process failed.
2. The jury failed.
3. The defense attorney failed.
4. Willingham's implausible explanation for why, on the way out of the house, he passed right by the kid's room WITHOUT ATTEMPTING TO SAVE THEM showed anything less than depraved indifference.
5. Willingham's jailhouse confession was false.
6. His wife was wrong.
7. Witnesses such as neighbors and firemen were wrong.
8. The arson investigation reached the wrong conclusion."

That's a silly list.

For one thing, the jailhouse snitch has recanted (and if the jailhouse confession was correct, why didn't the prosecutor go after Willingham's wife for abusing the kids. The was what the jailhouse snitch said was the reason Willingham gave for setting the fire). His wife supported him throughout the trial and claimed on the stand that he never beat her. Willingham says he tried to go into the kids room but the smoke was too bad to see them. Prosecuters doubted his story because his feet weren't burned - same thing happened to Ernest Willis whose conviction was overturned. Witnesses on the scene gave conflicting accounts - some said he was too distraught, some said he was indifferent. Some say he didn't try to save the kids, some say he had to be physically restrained from re-entering the house. Given the contradicting testimony, many people had to be wrong.

But most importantly, the fire expert got up on the stand and said these things prove it was arson. That's compelling testimony, especially at the time of the trial when the actual behavior of fires wasn't as well known. Had the scientific evidence not come along AFTER Willingham was convicted, we wouldn't have any reason to be talking about it now because we'd still be taking the supposed expert's word for it (even as bad an investigator as he apparently was, many of the things he testified to were thought to be telltale signs of arson at the time. Science has since caught up)

So, I don't think the jury "got it wrong", the made the decision based on the evidence they had in front of them, and I can imagine I would've made the same decision had I faced the same testimony that was presented at the time.

Same with the defense attorney, for the most part (I don't think he did a great job. He has repeatedly said he thought Willingham was guilty based on the now-discredited arson findings. I don't know how hard he truly tried to prove those arson findings were wrong, given that he believed them himself).

And finally, it's been proven that the only things that "proved" arson didn't prove arson at all. So, the arson findings were wrong.

Honestly, you could make a similar or even longer list of "people who got it wrong" for every person that DNA has freed. For these cases to ever get that far, that many things and more have to go wrong. If things didn't go so terribly wrong, these people wouldn't be convicted.

Anonymous said...

Karo: Are you Pat Bachelor?

Karo said...

Hey I said it was possible that all eight things in that list happened but to me it seems extremely unlikely. Different people will reach different conclusions based on the same evidence. Maybe you disagree and that's fine.

I also wrote I could be swayed by modern forensic if they proved the fire was accidental. They didn't. Maybe you are convinced by different information and that's fine too.

Willingham is long dead so I don't really care whether or not he could be acquitted if retried today, or if still alive a new trial should be granted. At this point I only care about whether he was actually innocent. Personally I'd require a statement from modern science that the fire was definately not arson. Your standard of proof may be different than mine. It doesn't mean I'm mean, or stupid, or Rosenthalesque.

Reasonable people can disagree, even on the intarwebs.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Karo, reasonable people can disagree. The problem is your position is not based on reason. Its based on some kind of stubborn prejudice and bias that you hold that blinds you to what is plain to others.

Karo said...

Sure 10:19AM. My requirement for definitive science excluding arson is based on prejudice.

Meanwhile your belief that the entire system failed is surely based on reason. And reason is the basis for your willingness to believe almost anything that affirms your opinion that the criminal justice system is hopelessly corrupt. Pure logic dictates that cops are all pigs. Your views on Willingham’s conviction were not influenced by those blatantly biased essays you've read. You know the ones which only highlight the questionable evidence and sweep the damning information under the carpet. That propaganda had no impact on you.

In your word, reasonable people believe in psychic readings, auras, ghosts, or even a Holy Ghost. Those of us that reject those things without proof are just blinded by our prejudices.

Anonymous said...

Karo, I just have one question. Do you believe in the concept that someone in innocent until proven guilty?

Willingham was convicted but since the evidence on which he was convicted is now known to be bogus he was not PROVEN to be guilty. Therefore, he is entitled the presumption of innnocence. If you don't agree your answer the above question is clearly No.

A second question. If you were arrested and charged with something you didn't do, do you believe you should be presumed innocent or should you be presumed guilty unless you can prove your innocence?

If we do away with the presumption of innocence for others, it won't apply to you either. If we don't protect the other guy's rights we lose our own.

Another point, I think most jurors don't have the presumption of innocence that they should. If we were going to be honest we may as well just admit we've abandoned that standard in our system.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Karo, I'm still waiting for you to prove you didn't set the fire. I think that is why you are arguing so hard that Willingham was guilty, to divert attention from yourself. Come on, admit it, we know you did it. I'm sure we could come up with some witnesses that with a little help might be convinced they saw someone that looked a little like you there and by the time of your trial they would be certain it was you (the police having confirmed it to them).

dudleysharp said...

As Michael Landauer well knows, those who think Willingham did it firmly believe that is was arson. So, Landauer's question is just nonsense.

From two fire investiagators, who were at the scene:

"A lot of this stuff (in Beyler’s report) is misspoken or misinterpreted,” Fogg said. “We eliminated all accidental causes.” "Beyler acknowledges that one sample did have accelerant in it, but said it was unidentified, a claim Fogg disputes.""Beyler theorized it was a flashover, and said investigators didn’t see the difference between the intense heat of a flashover and an accelerant-driven fire.""Fogg laughed at the notion." " If it had been a flashover, it would have taken out the thin layer of sheetrock on the walls, he argued." “That house was box construction,” Fogg said. “The only sheetrock that came down was what was hit with water. The paper backing wasn’t even scorched.”

Hensley:
"For Hensley, the most damning evidence came from Willingham, who told officers that 2-year-old Amber woke him up. Firefighters later found her in his bed, with burns on the soles of her feet." " Yet, Willingham didn’t take the girl with him when he fled, nor did he receive burns walking down that same hallway, Hensley pointed out." "Willingham “had no more (carbon monoxide) than somebody who had just smoked a cigarette,” Hensley said. "Hensley has since become a certified arson investigator. In hindsight, he insists they took the right steps with the evidence in the Willingham case." “We did everything we were supposed to do,” he said.

"Hensley also dismisses Beyler’s report, pointing out that Beyler didn’t talk to the investigators, and reading the testimony can’t replace first-person observations." “You can find expert witnesses everywhere, and if you pay them enough they’ll testify to anything,” Hensley said. “They’re to be bought.” “You can’t just look at a little part. Look at the whole picture, and that’s what the jury did,” Hensley said. “If a 2-year-old wakes you up and there’s smoke and fire everywhere, aren’t you going to at least get that one out? It couldn’t possibly have happened the way (Willingham) said.” "Willingham’s behavior afterwards did not help his case. Todd Morris was the first police officer on the scene and he found Willingham trying to push his car away from the house to save it from the fire, while his children were inside burning up, Hensley said."

from:
"No doubts: Those closest to case shed no tears for Willingham"
http://www.corsicanadailysun.com/thewillinghamfiles/local_story_250180658.html

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Dudley, you're a piece of work. The first investigator makes a claim unsupported by ANY of the top fire investigators in the country, the second makes claims entirely UNRELATED to any arson indicators (and disputed by witnesses at the scene, according to the New Yorker.)

There's simply no credible argument to be made this was arson.

You need to take on the Gann piece in the New Yorker and critique it point by point if you want to adopt that position. It's not really credible to rely on that CYA article from the Corsicana Sun printed before the most damning critique came out.

Karo said...

"[...] Beyler didn’t talk to the investigators"

If this is true then it seems Beyler is creating junk science.

I took it as a given that a modern re-investigation of an old crime would interview the original investigators and consider all remaining evidence. If Dudley's quotes are accurate then what Beyler offers is not even good journalism, much less good science.

Anonymous said...

The new science indicates there is some question. Justice would best be served by a new trial. Ooops, oh, right, he's dead now. Perhaps we should re-think the death penalty, in light of even the possibility that the State of Texas has indeed executed an innocent man.

yvette said...

I think Texas should get rid of Perry the ignorant baboon. Drop him on some island he's a fool with power and that's a dangerous man next him and his buddies will be charging people with murder when the death was natural causes.

yvette said...

I totally agree with the re-think of the DP. I thought the DP was for societies that hadn't developed once society progressed and we was able to confine offenders in prisons we could get rid of the backward law. How does it punish the offender they are feeling no pain there dead and gone? How do you say sorry we got it wrong? Like Perry and Johnson are doing now deny deny deny. Why do people have a problem with getting things wrong if you understand you have made a mistake you have learnt something! Unfortunately Perry never will he's too much of a bigot! Get rid of this pos he can't give the mans mother a long overdue sorry.

Anonymous said...

Yeah we should really consider the positives of making the death as painful and terrifying as possible. Maybe some fatal water boarding.

dudleysharp said...

Grists:

I am confused by your reply. You write:

"It's not really credible to rely on that CYA article from the Corsicana Sun printed before the most damning critique came out."

Unless a new report, after Beyler's came out, they were very aware of the most damning critique.

That's what they were responding to.

Anonymous said...

Karo,

What's zombie Jesus? Isn't that just plain ol' rose-from-the-dead Christianity?

Karo said...

Same thing.

yvette said...

I know its Texas but Perry is the biggest cowboy of them all give him a one way ticket to China.