Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Willingham court of inquiry postponed: Culture War shouting down scientific debates on arson

Judge Charlie Baird postponed the Todd Willingham Court of Inquiry to give attorneys for his family time to respond to the Navarro County DA's motion for recusal. There was a large press gaggle in attendance today at the Travis County Courthouse, so I decided to leave the blow-by-blow coverage to those paid to be there, which is good since the case ended up being pushed back.

Before leaving, though, I did attend an impromptu press conference outside the courthouse at which a statement was released by Willingham's ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, reiterating her claim that her ex-husband confessed the crime in her final visit with him just before his execution. See Stephen Kreytak's coverage from the Austin Statesman of the press event.

The problem with her statement is that it contradicts things she's said in the past, including statements under oath, particularly about whether they had been experiencing marital troubles or were fighting immediately before the fire. The statement released today claims that "the night before the fire we got into an argument" and Kuykendall told Willingham she planned to divorce him. However, as reported by David Grann of the New Yorker, "During the penalty phase of the trial, she testified under oath. Once more, she never mentioned that they had fought the night before the fire or that she had threatened to divorce him, and she said that she was convinced he was innocent. 'He’s never hurt those kids,' she said."

Grann even quoted the prosecutor in the case (now a district judge) lamenting Kuykendall's contradictory statements: “She’s given very different stories about what happened on this particular day right up to the date of his execution ... It’s hard for me to make heads or tails of anything she said or didn’t say.”

What's more, while Kuykendall claims her ex-husband confessed to her scant days before his execution, she gave an interview with a reporter immediately after that final visit in which she said she now believed he was guilty but that he did not confess when she spoke to him  (FWIW, last year I filed an open records request asking for any recording from that visit, but TDCJ implausibly replied that no such records exist.)

Watching Kuykendall as she stood mute by her high-powered lawyer, former US Attorney Johnny Sutton, who did all the talking, I couldn't help but reach the same conclusion as in this earlier Grits post:
I feel sorry for Stacy Kuykendall and I know this must seem like a never ending nightmare that has devastated and defined her entire adult life. (Somebody please explain to me again how the death penalty provides "closure" for victims?) As though losing three children isn't a big enough tragedy, no one has ever believed her, it seems. When she testified in her husband's defense, prosecutors considered her as a dupe. Now that she's changed her mind about what happened, these latest recollections of her ex-husband's confession simply cannot be reconciled with all she's said in the past.

I don't know which time Kuykendall was telling the truth or what was her motive when she didn't, but I know for sure it can't all be accurate. That fact can't be overcome just from sympathy for her unfortunate and painful history. It's regrettable that she put herself in that position in such a high-profile case, but that's where we are.
I continue to regret that the case chosen as the poster child for flawed arson testimony was a death penalty case where the defendant has already been executed. That's because the Culture War battles surrounding capital punishment have continually overshadowed the debate over arson science and now-discredited forensics. Death penalty proponents keep skewering arson expert Craig Beyler for his critical report to the Forensic Science Commission, ignoring the fact that eight other experts who've examined the case reached the same conclusions. Meanwhile many opponents of the death penalty can't wait to "prove" Willingham's innocence, not because they hope it will lead to other exonerations based on exposing flawed arson forensics, but because they falsely believe that the execution of an innocent person would sway public opinion against the death penalty.

For my part, I'd just like the experts to come to grips with exactly what is and isn't good science on the subject (a debate I was hoping would happen at the Court of Inquiry since John Bradley won't let it happen at the Forensic Science Commission) and then somehow, some way, go back to make sure innocent people haven't been falsely convicted based on junk science. Todd Willingham is dead and no Court of Inquiry, whatever the outcome, will cause him to spring back to life. At best, revisiting junk science in this case might help others going forward, but that would be more likely to happen if the debate were centered on the need for accurate forensics instead of defending or attacking the death penalty.


Ryan Paige said...

I imagine the Willingham case keeps coming up as the poster child because other exonerations haven't changed any minds regarding fire science.

Apparently people like Ernest Willis aren't a big enough story to get anything changed.

Anonymous said...

For those of us who routinely deal with domestic violence and child abuse cases, Grits, the conflicting statements by Stacy Kuykendall are hardly surprising. It is not uncommon at all for those women to lie to protect their abuser out of loyalty, fear, love, desperation, or all of the above. There is also this weird psychological dynamic in child homicide cases where mothers will go out of their way to deny to themselves that they did anything wrong by leaving their child in the care of an abuser. I've seen numerous cases where women will take the side of their husband or boyfriend over their own kids. Sometimes it takes months or years for them to acknowledge that they left their child at risk by leaving them alone with an abuser. Whatever Stacy's motivations are for changing her story, I certainly wouldn't be so quick to discount the possibility that she's telling the truth about Willingham's confession.

Anonymous said...

4:43, if you're right then she lied under oath. Either way she's not a very credible source at this point.

Anonymous said...

She wouldn't be the first woman to lie under oath to protect her husband or boyfriend. Just saw today where Baylor basketball star LaceDarius Dunn's girlfriend was requesting that assault charges against him be dropped after he broke her jaw in two places. What do you want to be that she conveniently "forgets" what happened?

In any event, Ms. Kuykendall has at least as much credibility in my book as Charlie Baird, Barry Scheck and another of those other "bleeding heart" anti-death penalty folks who have nothing better to do than try to abolish the death penalty in Texas.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@4:43, you may be right. But then why did she not tell the same story she's telling now to the reporter from the Corsicana Sun on the day she actually talked to Willingham? That was AFTER she'd flip flopped and decided she believed he was guilty (she said so to the reporter), so according to your thesis, by then she would have no reason to protect him if he'd confessed to her just hours before.

I don't know what to believe and honestly, given that Willingham is dead, I don't think it matters much. That's one of the reasons I wish we were discussing a case that would allow us to focus on the arson science instead of the death penalty.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet somebody from Perry's campaign set her up with Johnny Sutton. Or maybe she just happened to have a former US Attorney on her speed dial. :^)

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing. Someone who knows someone needs to do an inquiry into his ex-wife's bank account as of late. Just sayin. Something wicked this way comes.

Anonymous said...

Go get em Lowell! Way to stand up for justice.

Anonymous said...

Nice work on the wife, Grits. BTW, this works just as well: "I don't know which time Willingham was telling the truth or what was his motive when he didn't, but I know for sure it can't all be accurate"... either he went out the front door or the back door... either he kicked the door down with his bare feet against the hinge or he opened it... either he left Amber in her bed behind the child gate or she was in bed with him (where her body was found)... either he set the fire or he didn't... Why is Willingham a perfectly credible witness but Stacy isn't?

Anonymous said...

I doubt Perry gives a rats ass about this case, then or now. Even if Willingham were somehow found to be innocent, Perry would just say he made the call based on the information he had at the time, just as judge Baird is saying now. No opponent of Perry is going to side with anti-death penalty crusaders. Maybe the campaign would be slightly embarrassed, but less so than "adios mofo" or "let's get on down the road". So they had the 4 page Hurst report for a couple of hours? Perry would just say the crime scene evidence was overwhelming. And I say this as a person who is both against the death penalty and for Bill White.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:24: I also am both against the death penalty and for Bill White. But I think I can separate those convictions/prejudices from what this hearing about. It is or should be about forensic, specifically arson science. But there is a story in AGN this morning that headlines it as a death penalty hearing. Which it is, but only indirectly. It is politically advantageous to Perry et. al. to focus on the death penalty, since pro-death penalty folks still outpoll anti-death penalty advocates.

My two bits worth.
Rev. Charles tulia

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:10, I didn't say Willingham is a "perfectly credible witness." In fact, he did not testify at his trial. The main evidence against him was the flawed forensics, which is where my comments have been focused.

8:24, Perry's appointment of John Bradley to the Forensic Science Commission and Bradley's subsequent stalling and interference into examining the case belies your notion that he doesn't care. That said, I don't believe, as 10:41 said last night, that Stacy K received any sort of payoff. She's in an incredibly difficult situation, and has been for 20 years. Memory is a tricky thing - often we remember what we want to - and I don't consider her dishonest, but her various statements cannot be reconciled for the reasons stated by the prosecutor in the case.