Virtually everything the Sun publishes about Todd Willingham comes off as a parochial, naive, one-sided defense against recent challenges to the forensics presented at trial. I have no beef with advocacy journalism, so part of me thinks that the Sun adopting that role could serve a productive function. But in practice, they frequently allow local sources to make demonstrably inaccurate claims without contradiction. It's like they fantasize their readers won't also see coverage from the Dallas News or CNN, so they can just ignore widely reported facts instead of confront them.
The one that put it over the top for me came this week in a story titled "Affidavits dispute claims of innocence," in which the Sun published a five-year old affidavit based on disputed hearsay:
from Ronnie Kuykendall, brother of Stacy Kuykendall, who gave a statement to Kirby Hill regarding one of Willingham’s last visits with his ex-wife. Kuykendall said that on Feb. 8, 2004, a week before Willingham was to be executed, that Willingham’s ex-wife, Stacy called her family together to tell them about her last visit with her ex-husband.Now check out David Grann's response to this surprising claim on the New Yorker blog to see how a real reporter analyzes such information when it's given to them by city government - i.e., critically. As it turns out, Willingham's wife has spoken to the media since her husband's execution, when she told reporters from the Chicago Tribune that her brother's affidavit was untrue. Whoops! But hey, why bother to report what she actually said when you can recycle hearsay from someone who wasn't there? Pitiful.
“Stacy asked all of us to come into the living room, at this time she started crying and told us about her visit with Willingham,” Kuykendall said in the affidavit. “She stated that after visiting with him for about one hour and 45 minutes he told her that he had set the fire because he knew that she was going to leave him in January (1992) like she had said and that she was going to divorce him and he figured if he did this she would stay with him and she could get her tubes untied and that they could start another family and that he wanted her to write the board a letter because he did not want to die.”
Stacy Kuykendall has refused to talk to the media since her ex-husband’s execution. However, she spoke to Daily Sun reporter Loyd Cook in 2004, shortly before Willingham’s death.
At the time she said she was convinced Todd Willingham did kill their children.
Investigative reporters from the Chicago Tribune were the first to break the story nationally about faulty arson testimony in this case, so if reporters and editors at the Sun haven't read that story, then folks in their shop aren't really even paying attention, they're just serving as a de facto bulletin board for local officials. The alternative conclusion must be that they have read the Tribune story but simply chose not to present facts to their readers that contradicted what local officials told them that day. Either way, this was hardly journalism's finest hour.
Even more embarrassing, the Sun actually misrepresented their own reportage of exactly that meeting. Writes Grann:
Stacy gave an interview to the Corsicana Daily Sun on February 8, 2004—the very day that Ronnie Kuykendall claimed Stacy had told him that Willingham had confessed. In the interview, she said that during her visit with Willingham he maintained that the fire was accidental and that their daughter Amber had likely caused itSo again, why disbelieve your own reporter, who talked to Ms. Kuykendall immediately after the conversation, and then present as some sort of new facts this old hearsay from her brother? If Grann can dig that story up from the Sun's own online archives, so can they.
There's lots more to talk about on this case than I have time to focus on, but the MSM and blogosphere are buzzing about it. If you're looking for more, Steve Hall at the Stand Down Project is pretty constantly rounding up coverage. Also check out:
- David Grann, The New Yorker: What Stacy Said
- Scott Cobb, Burnt Orange Report: Todd Willingham's defense lawyer embarrasses Texas justice system.
- Glenn Smith, DogCanyon: Supreme Court Judge David Medina, Once Indicted for Arson, Was Perry's General Counsel when Willingham Stay Denied.
- Scott Greenfield, Simple Justice: Never smear your own client
- Mark Bennett, Defending People: Willingham's trial lawyer speaks up
- Gardner Selby, Austin Statesman: Opportunities missed in fatal Texas arson case
- Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune: Statements by Gov. Perry, others don't align with facts
- CNN: Willingham juror no longer sure of his guilt in Texas case
- R.G. Ratcliffe, Houston Chronicle: Perry keeps Willingham memo a secret