Cameron Todd Willingham and How To Prevent Another Wrongful Execution

Last week we wrote about the new forensic report establishing that the fire for which Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas was not arson, but accidentally set. Texas now has the dishonor, in addition to being the state that executes the most people, of being the first state we know of that has executed an innocent person.

This week's New Yorker has a must-read article on the case by David Grann.

Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project, has some thoughts on Grann's article and some suggestions for preventing another wrongful execution in Innocent But Executed. [More...]

An extraordinary new investigative report in the New Yorker shows that Willingham was telling the truth. He was innocent. David Grann's report, in the September 7 issue, exhaustively deconstructs every aspect of the case and shows that none of the evidence used to convict Willingham was valid. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1974, Grann's report constitutes the strongest case on record in this country that an innocent man was executed.

....The state forensic commission in Texas is still finishing its work on Willingham's case, but David Grann's New Yorker article examines the entire case, including the jailhouse informant who plainly gave false testimony and the circumstantial evidence, flimsy in the first place, that was not what it appeared to be to the jury. After reading Grann's report, fair-minded people will know beyond a reasonable doubt that an innocent person was executed.

...Whether our criminal justice system has executed an innocent man should no longer be an open question. We don't know how often it happens, but we know it has happened. Cameron Todd Willingham's case proves that.

What we need to prevent it from happening again:

The Innocence Project has found that forensic science problems were a factor in 50 percent of all wrongful convictions that were later overturned with DNA testing. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that many forensic disciplines are not rooted in solid science. The report called on Congress to create a National Institute of Forensic Science to set nationwide standards and ensure that evidence used in criminal cases is sufficiently scientific. This can be done cost-effectively and without creating a large bureaucracy.

For more, visit here. The report Barry references is available here.

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    10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by Scott Cobb on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 01:00:45 AM EST
    If you are shocked that Texas executed a person who was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, then join us in Austin at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.


    At the 7th Annual March in 2006, the family of Todd Willingham attended and delivered a letter to Governor Perry that said in part:

    "We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor's Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd's innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas."

    "Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. Texas also needs a statewide Office of Public Defenders for Capital Cases. Such an office will go a long way towards preventing innocent people from being executed. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented."

    How to prevent another wrongful execution? (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by MrConservative on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 02:37:39 AM EST
    Abolish the death penalty.

    a hundred billion dollar judgement... (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by Dadler on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 10:38:15 AM EST
    ...would accomplish all you hope to.  sadly, without bankrupting the process financially, i don't think you are going to change the culture of texecutions which, let's remember, largely rest on the de-facto premise that it's acceptable to execute and innocent here or there.  and now they can simply say, oh it was just one.  

    a hundred billion dollars to the family.  and the death penalty will end there.

    Something has been bothering me for a long time... (none / 0) (#3)
    by mexboy on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 05:30:38 AM EST
    What is the difference between execution and murder?
    Why is it that when the government does it, it is called execution, and when a citizen does it it is called murder?

    Why is it that when police officers assault and beat people up it is called officer misconduct or abuse of power and why don't they call it that when a citizen does the same thing?

    I've never heard of citizen abuse of power or misconduct.

    none. (none / 0) (#8)
    by cpinva on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 08:40:12 AM EST
    What is the difference between execution and murder?

    death by execution is considered a homocide, just a state sanctioned one. heck, what else could it be?


    The Defense rests (none / 0) (#4)
    by Rojas on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 06:04:11 AM EST
    Willingham's lawyers were equally pleased. They had little doubt that he had committed the murders and that, if the case went before a jury, he would be found guilty, and, subsequently, executed. "Everyone thinks defense lawyers must believe their clients are innocent, but that's seldom true," Martin told me. "Most of the time, they're guilty as sin." He added of Willingham, "All the evidence showed that he was one hundred per cent guilty. He poured accelerant all over the house and put lighter fluid under the kids' beds." It was, he said, "a classic arson case": there were "puddle patterns all over the place--no disputing those."

    Surely those comments are not current. (none / 0) (#5)
    by Romberry on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 07:37:25 AM EST
    "All the evidence showed that he was one hundred per cent guilty. He poured accelerant all over the house and put lighter fluid under the kids' beds. It was a classic arson case: there were puddle patterns all over the place--no disputing those." - David Martin, Willingham attorney and former state trooper

    Can Martin's comments possible be the least bit current? He actually said that ("there were puddle patterns all over the place--no disputing those") to the reporter for this article when there have been multiple reviews of the forensics dating back to at least 2004 which show that the conclusions of the arson investigation that was used to secure the conviction and execution were essentially bunk based on junk science and gut feelings? Is he not aware?

    I find myself wondering about something when I read things like this: If a lawyer in a case where a terrible crime has been charged truly believes that his client is 100 percent guilty, how is it that they retain the ability to defend that client zealously? If I had a client that I truly believed had burned his children alive, I don't know that I could provide a defense to the best of my abilities.

    I am sure that some attorneys are able to maintain professional detachment and do just as good a job when they believe their client has committed a terrible crime, but I can't imagine that the vast majority are able to do that. Lawyers are people too.


    A zealous defense (none / 0) (#7)
    by Rojas on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 08:30:51 AM EST
    "To me, he was not repentant," said Robert C. Dunn, one of Willingham's trial lawyers. "He had this attitude and air about him that he was wrongfully charged."

    An attitude, eh? (5.00 / 3) (#14)
    by Romberry on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 09:06:58 AM EST
    "He had this attitude and air about him that he was wrongfully charged."

    Ya know, being innocent has that effect sometimes. Someone should tell this lawyer about that sort of thing.


    except the reports show the lawyer was wrong (none / 0) (#11)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 08:51:49 AM EST
    there was no arson. Martin: "That crime scene was so replete with evidence of arson," he said. "There was no other cause for the house catching on fire."

    And that's false, so nothing else he says is worthy of being reprinted. Your point of view has been noted. Now move on.


    My point of view (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by Rojas on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 09:11:44 AM EST
    Is that the man had a right to a defense. He did not recieve it. I think the defense counsel's statements make it obvious. And that is a common denominator in many of not most of these wrongful convictions.

    The prosecutor weighs in (none / 0) (#6)
    by Rojas on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 08:23:04 AM EST
    I'm So Glad (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by The Maven on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 08:40:31 AM EST
    to see that the former prosecutor is now a Texas state court judge.  Given the tenor of his op-ed, I'm sure he's completely impartial in the criminal cases that come before him.  </snark>

    Meanwhile, today's New York Times has an editorial on the Willingham case, and let's just say they seem to take a rather different view on the matter from that of the prosecutor:

    People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.
        --  --  --
    The [Forensic Science Commission] is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.

    Prosecutor Jackson, for his part, seems to take the position that Willingham brought his death sentence upon himself, having rejected a plea deal for life in prison.  That, of course, seems to entirely miss the point that the defendant was executed for a crime that appears not to have taken place, most certainly not in the way portrayed by the state.

    i am shocked! (none / 0) (#10)
    by cpinva on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 08:48:48 AM EST
    well no, not really. this guy's a judge? his "evidence" holds no water, in a real courtroom anyway. i'm not sure that texas courtrooms qualify. absent the arson, which caused the fire resulting in the deaths, how else would he have been convicted?

    did this guy actually attend an accredited law school?

    i'll buy into willingham being historically a pr*ck, that isn't, in and of itself, a capital offense. according to the prosecution, it is.

    would texas please secede!


    and does not make the case for arson (none / 0) (#12)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 08:56:20 AM EST
    he says Willingham would have been convicted even without proof of arson.

    Please stop trying to redirect the discussion. The news is that a new independent forensics report confirms the Hurst report that was ignored before the execution. There was no arson. There was a jailhouse snitch and faulty forensic evidence that led to a conviction at trial.

    The issue now is how to prevent someone else from being wrongfully executed. Rojas, if you have nothing to contribute on this topic and only want to bolster the discredited prosecution, please do it elsewhere.


    That is not my intent (none / 0) (#13)
    by Rojas on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 09:06:13 AM EST
    I read it (none / 0) (#16)
    by Romberry on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 09:25:30 AM EST
    Without posting it all here, I'll say that point 1 seems at best irrelevant, it's claims at best unknowable, and its equating unborn fetuses (of unknown term based on this op-ed) with children a personal point of view.

    Point 2 is a mere statement of opinion.

    Point 3 may or may not have merit. How much blood gas would have been enough to satisfy the prosecutor?

    Point 4? I'll state flatly that polygraphs are junk science and anyone who relies on them is a fool. They may have offered a polygraph, but they surely would not have used a passing (truthful) result to justify not pushing this case. The only reason a prosecutor wants a polygraph is to try and pressure a confession. If you pass, it isn't admissible...because it's junk science.

    Point 5 is irrelevant. The only thing it's good for is to make Willingham (who admitted he was no angel) look bad.

    Point 6 is open to interpretation. How do they know Willingham didn't think the one that was "supposed to die" was him? As a father, I can imagine saying something like that. It's equivalent to "it should have been me, not you."

    Point 7 might mean something if there was direct testimony from his wife or someone else that the refrigerator was moved to block the door on the day of the fire. Since his wife at least initially believed in his innocence, that seems unlikely. Without a trial transcript, I don't know.


    Point 4.... can he prove he was not a witch (none / 0) (#18)
    by Rojas on Tue Sep 01, 2009 at 07:22:41 AM EST
    Those were my thoughts as well. Flash back to Salem 300 years ago and the similarities are striking.
    On a more positive note Terri's Fire

    Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty (none / 0) (#19)
    by dudleysharp on Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 01:01:45 PM EST
    From Dudley Sharp, contact info below

    1) "Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
    "Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?", by David Grann
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/10/04/cameron-todd-willingham-media-meltdown--the-death-penalty.as px

    This was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall's report, below:

    2) EXCLUSIVE: City report on arson probe:
    State panel asks for city response in Willingham case

    3) No Doubts

    For a collection of articles, go to:  

    Corsicana Daily Sun, The Willingham Files

    OTHER REPORTS: There is the potential for, at least, 3 more, official, reports on this case: the Texas Fire Marshall's office, which will give an official and requested reply, the Corsicana Police Dept. and Navarro County District Attorney's office, both of which, I speculate, may only contribute to the TFM report, but could issue their own reports.

    There is an official "report" which, it appears, few have paid attention to - the trial transcript.  

    I find that rather important because, at least five persons, who were involved with the trial, the prosecutor, defense attorney, two surviving fire investigators and a juror have all voiced support for the verdict, still, in the light of the criticism of the arson forensics.

    One of those original fire investigators is, now, an active certified arson expert.

    Dudley Sharp
    e-mail  sharpjfa@aol.com,  713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas

    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally

    NCADP's Willingham Case Campaign (none / 0) (#20)
    by MargaretS on Wed Oct 21, 2009 at 01:29:47 PM EST
    The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP)highlighted the Willingham case in a 2007 report "Innocent and Executed" which also featured accounts about three other death row prisoners whose guilt was in doubt.

    Recently, NCADP launched its "Shouting from the Rooftops" campaign to increase public attention to and awareness of this case following the new report by fire scientist Craig Beyler which says the fire for which Willingham was executed was accidental, not caused by arson. The Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to accept and review the report in a hearing this September, but Texas Governor Rick Perry removed and replaced four of the Commissioners, including the Chair, who promptly cancelled the hearing.  It has yet to be rescheduled.  

    TalkLeft readers who would like to know more about our "Shouting from the Rooftops" campaign and how to participate in it can visit http://www.shoutingfromtherooftops.org.