Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of intentionally starting a fire that killed his three children, sentenced to death, and after many failed appeals, executed by lethal injection. Now it appears that the investigators who made determination of arson were acting more like forensic mystics than forensic scientists in making their decision. The state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.
In recent years, though, questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can be used only in rare instances. Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate prisoners, estimates that about eighty per cent of felonies do not involve biological evidence.
In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty. Though he had been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, he declared that he could no longer support a system that has “come so close to the ultimate nightmare-the state’s taking of innocent life.” Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”
Update: John Jackson, the prosecutor in the Willingham case, has written an op-ed piece for the Cosicana Daily Sun in which he defends the court’s guilty verdict, despite what he calls an “undeniably flawed forensic report”.
The Willingham case was charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status. I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
David Grann, the author of the New Yorker article referenced above, responds briefly to Jackson’s assertions.
But even if he refused to take a polygraph after he was arrested, polygraphs are notoriously unreliable, and are not admissible in a court of law. […] As a result, defense attorneys routinely do not let their clients take polygraphs. […] The idea that a lie-detector test (or the refusal to take one) could be considered evidence cuts to the core of the problems in the Willingham case: a reliance on unreliable and unsound scientific techniques.
Jackson’s belief that Willingham should have (whether he would have is another story) been convicted even in the absence of evidence of arson borders on parody and would be funny if it weren’t so obscene coming, as it does, from a sitting judge. If it’s not arson, how do you have a murder? If the fire killed the kids and he didn’t set the fire, how is he responsible? It’s fucking absurd.
Update: From the Texas Department of Criminal Justice web site, the last statement of Cameron Todd Willingham:
Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man - convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return - so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. [Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.]
Update: More evidence emerges of Willingham’s innocence: a jailhouse informant admits to lying on the stand in exchange for a reduced sentence and money.
Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.
But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.