In September of last year, The New Yorker published a piece by David Grann about Cameron Todd Willingham under the title of “Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?”
I really just want to copy the ENTIRE article into this post but that would be ridiculous, of course. But when you have twenty to thirty minutes, read this article from start to finish.
Before I move on, I want to make it clear that I think the answer to Grann’s subtitle, “Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man”, is YES. And that is reason alone that the death penalty needs to go. Right now. Today. If there is proof that a SINGLE innocent person has definitely been put to death using the death penalty, then it needs to stop immediately.
I’m going to use the Innocence Project’s website about Willingham to tell the story of trying to get the truth about the case out into the light, to get Texas to admit their mistake. (The New Yorker story is very detailed about the crime, the trial, and the arson report by a nationally-recognized arson expert that should have stopped the execution). And then I am going to give a summary of the bullshit that has been pulled by the governor’s office and the commission that he put together to investigate the Willingham case over the last few months, including last week’s report that made me want to slam my head against the wall in frustration.
This post is about the death of an innocent man at the hands of the state. Not at the hands of a single person, but as the result of the failure of a system. A system that we put into place, that we, the people of the state of Texas, implicitly endorse unless we are standing up and fighting against it. If nothing else, we have to get our voices out there, let our protest be known. Here is my protest.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004. Willingham was convicted of murder in 1992 after his three young daughters died in a fire at his Corsicana, Texas, home.
The prosecution claimed he intentionally set fire to his home in order to kill his own children. Willingham, who was asleep in the home when the fire started, always said he was innocent. He was convicted based on the testimony of forensic experts who said the fire was intentionally set and a jailhouse informant who said Willingham had confessed to him.
In the days leading up to Willingham’s execution, his attorneys sent the governor and the Board of Pardon and Parole a report from Gerald Hurst, a nationally recognized arson expert, saying that Willingham’s conviction was based on erroneous forensic analysis. Documents obtained by the Innocence Project show that state officials received that report but apparently did not act on it.
Months after Willingham was executed, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report that raised questions about the forensic analysis. The Innocence Project assembled five of the nation’s leading independent arson experts to review the evidence in the case, and they issued a 48-page report finding that none of the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was valid.
In 2006, the Innocence Project formally submitted the case to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, asking the empowered state entity to launch a full investigation. Along with the Willingham case, the Innocence Project submitted information about another arson case in Texas where identical evidence was used to send another man to death row. In that case, Ernest Willis was exonerated and freed from prison because the forensic evidence was not valid.
In 2008, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to investigate the case. The commission hired renowned arson expert Craig Beyler to review all of the evidence in the case. In August 2009, Beyler submitted his report to the commission, finding that the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong – and that experts who testified at Willingham’s trial should have known it was wrong at the time.
I am going to repeat part of the above quote to drive it home:
Along with the Willingham case, the Innocence Project submitted information about another arson case in Texas where identical evidence was used to send another man to death row. In that case, Ernest Willis was exonerated and freed from prison because the forensic evidence was not valid.
The state of Texas exonerated and freed a guy from jail based on the same flaw in forensic evidence that, once questioned, proved his innocence instead of his guilt. So, in the Willis case, the botched arson investigation resulted in the state admitting Willis’ innocence. At least the evidence made it out into the open BEFORE Willis’ murder. Oh man, thank god for that. But it hasn’t worked that way in the Willingham case, the case in which someone actually died because of bad evidence and turned heads.
Last year, Rick Perry, our esteemed governor, got involved in the investigation of Willinghman’s innocence. The same governor who chose NOT to stay the execution despite the evidence that Willingham was totally innocent of the crime.
In early October 2009, after there was mounting pressure to investigate the Willingham case following the press from The New Yorker article, Perry fired members of the commission in charge of investigating the case and replaced the head of the commission with a friend and ally, John Bradley (this also took place right in the middle of Republican gubernatorial primary time with prominent and popular Texas senator, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, in the running – though she, too, loves the death penalty.):
Governor Rick Perry’s surprise appointment of a conservative ally to lead a panel investigating whether Texas executed an innocent man has raised the question of whether politics will trump science on the state’s forensics board.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley has vowed to “let the facts lead us wherever they do.” But his first move as the ranking member of the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to cancel a meeting set for Friday, citing a need to study the issues confronting the panel.
The board was about to consider a report critical of an arson finding that led Cameron Todd Willingham to be executed for the deaths of his three daughters.
Bradley’s appointment came as Perry removed three members of the board, including its leader, Austin attorney Sam Bassett.
Samuel Bassett, whom Perry replaced on the Texas Forensic Science Commission two weeks ago, said he twice was called to meetings with Perry’s top attorneys. At one of those meetings, Bassett said he was told they were unhappy with the course of the commission’s investigation.
“I was surprised that they were involving themselves in the commission’s decision-making,” Bassett said. “I did feel some pressure from them, yes. There’s no question about that.” [..]
According to Bassett, the governor’s attorneys questioned the cost of the inquiry and asked why a fire scientist from Texas could not be hired to examine the case instead of the expert from Maryland that the panel ultimately settled on.
Following the meeting, a staffer from the general counsel’s office began to attend the commission’s meetings, Bassett said.
And although Bassett said he had hoped his work on the commission would focus solely on forensics, the meetings he described likely will add to questions about Perry’s mo[ti]ves.
Bassett told the Tribune the governor’s attorneys at the meetings were then-General Counsel David Cabrales and Deputy General Counsel Mary Anne Wiley, one of Perry’s top advisers on criminal justice issues. Cabrales, now in private practice, and Wiley referred questions to the governor’s press office. A Perry spokeswoman said the governor was not aware of the meetings and called them “regular, routine and expected.” […]
But, Bassett said, Cabrales told him in February  that the Willingham investigation was not the kind of work the legislature intended for the commission.
Here is what Perry said about Willingham and the investigation into his innocence just after that switcheroo on the commission:
A man put to death in 2004 for killing his three children was “a monster,” and suggestions that he may have been innocent are anti-death penalty propaganda, Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday. […]
“Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn’t have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren’t covering,” Perry said. […]
The governor has been criticized for replacing members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just before they were to review a new report critical of the arson science used to convict Willingham. If the evidence ultimately proves Willingham did not kill his children, it would be the first known wrongful execution in Texas.
Perry dismissed suggestions he was trying to influence the commission’s findings, calling the commission members’ replacement a matter of “process.” He said capable new members of the panel will move forward with the investigation.
But a Baltimore-based arson expert hired by the Forensic Science Commission to study the case, Craig Beyler, concluded that the arson findings were not scientifically supported and that investigators at the scene had “poor understandings of fire science.”
Perry said he wanted to remind the public of all the facts in the case, not “one piece of study that everyone is glomming onto and saying ‘Ah-ha.’”
“Getting all tied up in the process here frankly is a deflection of what people across this state and this country need to be looking at,” Perry said.
At trial, Willingham’s wife, Stacy, testified for him during the punishment phase, denying he ever hurt her. Acquaintances, however, said she told them he’d beaten her several times, even while she was pregnant.
First off, so many arson experts have looked at the evidence in this case and dismissed it as being arson. The original arson investigators were WRONG. The crime for which Willingham died was not even a crime. The state of Texas killed a man for nothing, essentially. So, whether or not he was a shitty dude who did shitty things like beat his wife or forced her in an abortion, those things are not penalized by the state in the form of death. Perry can think the man is a “monster”, the man can be a “monster” by Perry’s definition, and that DOESN’T matter. We don’t kill people in this country simply because we don’t like them. At least, I thought we didn’t.
Second, Perry definitely delayed the commission on purpose until the press from The New Yorker article went away. And he was clearly right to do so because people stopped paying attention and he didn’t have to sweat it. I hope he was able to sleep at night.
Third, that “one piece of evidence” that everyone was glomming onto was commissioned by the commission. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s not some hocus-pocus magical document that simply appeared.
Fourth, HELL YEAH people pointing out the evidence that Willingham was murdered by the state is anti-death penalty propaganda. The shitty part for Perry and death-penalty proponents is that the evidence, the “propaganda” points to Willingham’s innocence. It also points to the fact that all the precautionary things put in place to stop an innocent man from being killed by the state didn’t work (mainly because when pro-death penalty people are in charge of the state, they don’t seem to give a shit about innocent or guilt or evidence).
SO, a week ago the commission FINALLY had a report about the Willingham case and it was, of course, disappointing and maddening, mainly because it presented the case as if people are questioning whether the original arson investigators were negligent or committed misconduct, instead of focusing on whether the flawed science of those investigators and the negligence of the last-minute fail-safe system for stopping innocent people from being executed led to Willingham’s innocent life being taken by the state:
A commission reviewing a disputed arson finding that led to a Corsicana man’s 2004 execution for the deaths of his three young children said in a preliminary report Friday that the fire investigators used flawed science but didn’t commit negligence or misconduct.
Texas Forensic Science Commission members said they believed there was insufficient evidence to establish whether investigators botched their 1991 investigation of the fire that killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three daughters. […]
New fire investigation standards were developed in 1992, the year Willingham was convicted, but weren’t adopted nationally for several years after that, said Bradley, who also is the Williamson County district attorney.
The panel will prepare its final report and present it for a vote at a meeting sometime before mid-October.
But here is what is comes down, there was a national arson expert who wrote up a report before Willingham died that said ALL of this, a report that crossed the desk of Rick Perry, a report that was presented to the group that can stop executions. No one paid attention. No one cared. And so, the state of Texas, in all its power, murdered an innocent man. Here is what Patricia Cox, Willingham’s cousin, said in response to the commission’s stupid report:
“Even though there may not have been any malice or intent by fire investigators about not being informed on current standards, that doesn’t excuse the fact that, based on this misinformation, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, and that can’t be corrected,” said a tearful Cox.
For more see:
- Cameron Todd Willingham – Innocent and Executed
- Executed but Possibly Innocent (a run down of other possible innocent people murdered by the state)
- Dahlia Lithwick: Cameron Todd Willingham, not innocent enough
- Did Texas Kill an Innocent Man? (The Economist)
- And again, The Innocence Project