Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ripped from the headlines: Crime show popularizes Willingham lookalike case

Michael Hall from Texas Monthly emails to say:
Several people have told me about last night's episode of Law and Order SVU, which features an arson case that is almost a note for note copy of the Willingham case. Here is a video that shows the highlights--including the long-haired arson expert who helps turn things around--AKA Gerald Hurst, Rollingwood's own. And check how the fighting young ADA (Sharon Stone!) fights for truth and justice when she finds the error of the prosecution's ways.
If it really were prosecutors ferreting out problems with arson science in the Willingham case instead of stalling investigations into flawed science, I'd feel less conflicted about this portrayal. In real life, of course, it would be a defense attorney finding and presenting that expert, which the courts and the Governor would then ignore before sending the defendant to his death. OTOH, maybe they're trying to show how the case might have come out differently if the prosecutor had performed his job more diligently. I haven't been able to stomach Law & Order or its many spinoffs in quite a few years. That program has really jumped the shark. Here's the excerpt Hall mentioned:


Anonymous said...

I watched all the various forms of Law and Order for quite a few years. As a drama it's fairly interesting. As a typical fact based crime and punishment ordeal it leaves much to be desired. About half the time I watch it I see obvious errors in the investigation and prosecution of crimes that our appellate courts would have a field day with.


Whitsfoe said...


Is it just me or is Sharon Stone still "all that and a bag of chips?"

Damn boy.... I'll never look at my ex the same again.

Jerri Lynn Ward said...

I like how you call Sharon Stone the "young" ADA, given that she and I were born during the same decade.

Anonymous said...

Cold Case on CBS also had a Willingham-similar episode in March.

Anonymous said...

New Waco movie in the works.
"This film is bound to be controversial – it has already caused quite a ruckus, as Texas Film Commission Director Bob Hudgins denied film incentive money to the producers of Waco (which has a proposed $30 million budget) last year."

Anonymous said...

I understand what you mean about not being able to stomach Law and Order. I loved the original series back in the day, when it had a soul. Now all it seems to do is make heroes of cops and prosecutors, while dehumanizing the accused.

Stephen Saloom said...

I haven't seen the show, but I will say this: It sounds quite a bit like the case of Ernest Willis, which is the companion arson/murder case (along with that of Todd Willingham) that the Innocence Project filed with the Forensic Science Commission.

In short, Mr. Willis was set to be executed for an arson murder. On appeal the conviction was overturned. Upon preparing for re-trial, prosecutor Ori White engaged an expert and realized that (as in the Willingham case) the fire investigator's conclusion of arson was based on folklore, which had long been recognized as unreliable by the arson investigation community. As a result of what he learned about fire investigations as related to Mr. Willis's case, Mr. White dropped the charges. Mr. Willis was ultimately deemed by the State of Texas to be actually innocent.

Here is the description from our 11/30/07 letter to the Forensic Science Commission, where we provide a synopsis of that "companion case" the Innocence Project filed along with Mr. Willingham's regarding arson findings.

[1] Ernest Willis was originally convicted of arson by murder, like Mr. Willingham, based on the same arson analysis used to convict Mr. Willingham. Mr. Willis’s conviction was later overturned (on separate grounds) and in preparation for re-trial Pecos County Attorney Ori White agreed with his arson expert that the arson analysis used to originally convict Mr. Willis was baseless. As a result of the prosecutor’s motion, which was based on his arson expert’s findings, the charges of murder by arson against Mr. Willis were ultimately dismissed by the Texas Judicial System, and Mr. Willis was ultimately compensated by the State of Texas based on his actual innocence.