Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham: Required Reading

I thought it'd be useful to round up some commentary on the Willingham case, which has drawn a huge amount of interest.

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. 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 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:


el_longhorn said...

This is a stunning case. I just read the New Yorker story and am shaken up by it. A father of 3 children loses them in a fire and is then falsely prosecuted for their murders. As a father myself, my heart aches for Willingham.

His letters to Ms. Gilbert should be published as a book. They are very poignant.

Karo said...

Anti-Death penalty advocates are always seeing innocence where there is none. Do yourself and your cause a favor and wait until you have an actual DNA exhonoration. This arson approach can never be conclusive because, unlike DNA, the original evidence (the crime scene) is no longer available to be re-evaluated with modern techniquces.

All we can do today is make judgements about the reports given by of original investigators. We can't examine the actual evidence because it is long gone. For all we know the modern arson investigation techniques would uncover MORE evidence of guilt that was missed 20 years ago. This is especially likely given the other non-forensic evidence and Willingham's own dubious explanation of the events leading up to the inferno.

Do not allow yourselves to be manipulated by a journalist with an obvious axe to grind. Even if you yourself have the same axe the bias is obvious in any reporting that minimizes or downplays the rotten character of this dispicable man Willingham.

The only tragedy here is that Willingham was executed peacefully which is much better than he deserved for intentionally burning his children alive.

Karo said...

PS: Sorry for all the spelling errors.

Lynn said...

Ugh. This makes me queasy. All the recent the press on Cameron Todd Willingham's case is especially timely since the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions will have their first meeting this fall, I'm told, and will publish a report next year. I'm not expecting miracles (in fact, quite the opposite), but it will be interesting to see what they do.

Chris H said...

Assuming the investigator is correct on the Willingham, what are the correct reforms? Don't just come back with abolish the death penalty. There are crimes so heinous where the only means by which we have to prevent injustice from reigning is the death penalty.

Anonymous said...

Prosecutor, turned judge, now retired. Although he sits as a visiting judge.

Karo: Your spelling errors are nothing compared to the complete idiocy contained in your post on substantive issues.

Rage Judicata said...

A reported for the Corsicana Daily Sun, who was at the scene of the fire, published a column in which he directly refutes several of Judge Jackson's reasons for believing that Willingham was guilty. The columnist saw Willingham being restrained by firemen, his car by the house, and expressing remorse about the kids. Jackson said he didn't try to go in the house again, that Willingham rolled his car away from the house so it wouldn't burn instead of trying to go back in, and that he expressed no distress about the kids' in the house. So that's three pieces of "evidence" we know to be false.

We also know that the doctor that diagnosed Willingham as a sociopath never met with him, and has had his license to practice taken away for diagnosing patients without so much as speaking to them even once.

But there will always be people who see this as an "anti-death penalty crusade."

The guy was innocent. I can't imagine a better reason to go on a crusade.

Anonymous said...

Karo - your assertion that we should discount or deny that an incredible injustice to Willingham occured given persuasive evidence of that injustice based on "hunches" that incriminating evidence lies hidden somewhere is really grasping at straws and perverse.  Where is your critical thinking - you assume the law is right because it is the law, that justice is served when a factually innocent man is convicted of a capital crime.

Justice is about balance and fairness - in arrest, investigation, adjudication, sentencing, imposition and appeal. Was justice served in the Willingham case? What if instead of him it was you? Would justice have been served? Would you see it as fair?  

Charles Kuffner said...

Scott - Good roundup. I'd include this Dahlia Lithwick article as well. Thanks!

Karo said...

1) The actual evidence is gone.

2) Modern experts reviewed the preserved records of the original arson investigation.

3) Modern experts say original conclusions are not supported by preserved records created by original investigators.

4) Either the original investigators knew what they were doing, or they didn't.

Do we agree so far?

OK, so pay attention here because here's the rub: if the original investigators didn't know their arse from a hole in the ground then not only was their original conclusion faulty, but the preserved record created by the original investigators is also faulty. Ergo it is impossible for a modern review of a flawed record to reach any definite conclusion regarding arson. The man has not be proven innocent. Q.E.D.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Karo, you don't seem to understand the critiques of the arson evidence. It was investigators' INTERPRETATIONS of the evidence that was flawed. Crime scene photos showed burn patterns, e.g., but investigators wrongly interpreted them as arson. Now that more is known about arson science, it's possible to correctly interpret that evidence. The evidence didn't change - what changed was experts' knowledge of fire and how it behaves.

Anonymous said...

I would like to take exception to your statement that the science has changed.
From the Beyler report:
The investigations of the Willis and Willingham fires did not comport with either the modern standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980–1992. The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination. A finding of arson could not be sustained based upon the standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980–1992."

Karo said...

Would you trust the results of a modern arson investigation if the findings were based purely on analysis of photographs taken by someone whom you believe is not qualified to investigate arson?

Of course you wouldn't because you know its not just whats IN the photos that is important, its also what was LEFT OUT of the photos. You'd also want a chemical analysis to support findings of accelerants and who knows what other evidence.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:44 - the NFPA-921 is WHEN the arson science changed, but for a long time in the field most arson investigators ignored the new science and until recently continued to use old methodologies. Some investigators as recently as last winter STILL clung to pre-NFPA-921 methods.

That said, it's interesting that Beyler says their findings were also not supported by 1980-92 literature - I don't think that determination was in the previous experts' analysis. I've not yet read Beyler's report. If it's online somebody please point me to it.

Karo - most of the flawed arson indicators are entirely visual (so-called pour patterns, charring, crazed glass, etc.) and photos are plenty to critique the interpretation applied to them. Your claim that modern investigators might find other, additional evidence of arson is a particularly slim reed. Bottom line: The allegation that this was arson has been conclusively debunked by the leading national experts in the field. And if it wasn't arson, it wasn't murder.

Anonymous said...

The thing that really sticks in my craw is that Willingham's own "defense" attorney from trial has turned on him - bad conscience for not doing a better job on the case, perhaps? Obviously someone in need of a refresher course on legal ethics, in any event. Whatever he thinks privately, he has betrayed his professional duty by not keeping it to himself. For shame! And I'm not exactly impressed by Walter Reaves feeble efforts in state habeas either. He wasn't exactly beating the drum vigorously until the case became a posthumous cause celebre.

Karo said...

You say relying on visual photo evidence leads to flawed investigations while simultaneously trumpeting the "conclusive" results of the modern investigators who only had access to photo evidence.

The modern investigators offer alternate explanations for the damage shown in the photographs, they have not conclusively debunked anything. The mere existence of alternate explanations for multiple pieces of evidence might be enough for a good defense attorney to establish reasonable doubt and earn an acquittal, on the other hand a rational jury might decide it unlikely that new alternate explanations were the correct explanations for multiple pieces of evidence. Anyway, an acquittal is not the same thing as actual innocence. It is not a tragedy if we executed person who was actually guilty but who may have been acquitted if retried.

I don't need a 14,000 word essay to claim that if the fire happened today modern investigators would likely find more evidence of arson than those investigators back in the day. Modern investigators would gather more than just the evidentiary equivalent of the lowest-hanging fruit. There was non-forensic evidence including a confession and Willingham's dubious testimony explaining the cause of the fire and why he didn't manage to save any of his children. There were also many witnesses to Willingham's behavior before and during the fire. The verdict of arson didn't come from just two bozo bubba investigators. The evidence was plenty enough to convince everyone that was actually there in that town at that time in history: police, firemen, neighbors, family members, district attorneys, jurors, and judges. If all these people were convinced, and the jurors beyond a reasonable doubt, then the most likely explanation is it was actually arson. Therefore it is likely that modern investigation techniques would find additional evidence of arson.

They say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Here the extraordinary claim is that all these people who decided the fire was arson were wrong and as a result an innocent man was executed. The proof proffered in support of this claim is a modern review of old photographs. This is not extraordinary proof, at least to a normal person. This is why the author of the 14,000 word propaganda piece deliberately manipulates your feelings by minimizing or completely failing to mention evidence that contradicts the thesis that an innocent man was executed. And, lets face it, the "man bites dog" phenomenon dictates that the execution of a guilty person won't sell nearly as many papers as the execution of an innocent.

Grits, consider that perhaps you find this proof convincing for the same reason so many people believed Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 attacks, because it confirms your world-view and you want it to be true. It is inevitable that an innocent person will eventually be executed in Texas and the odds are it has already happened. As I said before you should wait until you have an actual DNA post-execution exoneration. The DNA will provide the extraordinary proof such claims require.

Scott Cobb said...

You can read Beyler's report on the TMN blog.

Anonymous said...

Those interested in this case may also want to review Terri's fire

Jonathan said...

Karo -

I agree that the current reports do not conclusively prove that the fire was accidental; though I put less trust in the other evidence of guilt, it is certainly true that a modern, well-performed, arson investigation would be very different from what actually occurred, and what evidence it would turn up (and of what) alas remains unknowable.

But what I do think is clear is that there is no way, based on the evidence presented at trial, that a finding of arson could be supported "beyond a reasonable doubt". Since such a finding would be key to convicting Willingham, Jackson's bizarre claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it seems clear to me that whether Willingham was factually innocent or guilty, there was no way, at the time of his trial, that he should have been convicted, nor anyway, when the failure of the key forensic evidence came to light, that his conviction should have been upheld.

Is this case more horrible than the similar case of Willis, who was released after being convicted and sentenced to death in similar circumstances? Well, yes, because Willingham is dead -- but it isn't *much* worse, really. The miscarriage of justice in killing a man on the basis of insufficient evidence, and locking a man away for decades in appalling conditions on the basis of insufficient evidence, is really a matter of arguing of levels of horror. Both are unacceptable in a civilized society.

Unknown said...



Chris Halkides said...

I have posted a rebuttal of the "No Doubts" newspaper article at

Karo is being misleading when he talks about photographs of the evidence. For example, no one disputes that there was crazed glass, but it used to be taken as evidence of accelerant and now people realize that crazed glass is formed when cold water hits hot glass and rapidly cools it.


Chris Halkides said...

Does anyone know what FM Vasquez's professional qualifications were? I would like to compare them against Dr. Beyler's and Dr. Hurst's.

Does anyone know whether someone confirmed the existence of the ceiling fan of which Willingham spoke, but which the investigators denied finding? The ceiling fan was supposed to be in the babies' room. I have a persisent commenter at Thanks.