Innocent but Dead
There is a long and remarkable article in the current New Yorker about a
man who was executed in Texas in 2004 for deliberately setting a fire that
killed his 3 small children. Rigorous scientific analysis has since shown
that there was no evidence that the fire in a 1-story, wood frame house in
Corsicana was the result of arson, as the authorities had alleged.
In other words, it was an accident. No crime had occurred.
Cameron Todd Willingham, who refused to accept a guilty plea that would
have spared his life, and who insisted until his last painful breath that
he was innocent, had in fact been telling the truth all along.
It was inevitable that some case in which a clearly innocent person had
been put to death would come to light. It was far from inevitable that
this case would be the one. "I was extremely skeptical in the beginning,"
said the New Yorker reporter, David Grann, who began investigating the
case last December.
The fire broke out on the morning of Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham was
awakened by the cries of his 2-year-old daughter, Amber. Also in the house
were his year-old twin girls, Karmon and Kameron. The family was poor, and
Willingham's wife, Stacy, had gone out to pick up a Christmas present for
the children from the Salvation Army.
Willingham said he tried to rescue the kids but was driven back by smoke
and flames. At one point his hair caught fire. As the heat intensified,
the windows of the children's room exploded and flames leapt out.
Willingham, who was 23 at the time, had to be restrained and eventually
handcuffed as he tried again to get into the room.
There was no reason to believe at first that the fire was anything other
than a horrible accident. But fire investigators, moving slowly through
the ruined house, began seeing things (not unlike someone viewing a
Rorschach pattern) that they interpreted as evidence of arson.
They noticed deep charring at the base of some of the walls and patterns
of soot that made them suspicious. They noticed what they felt were
ominous fracture patterns in pieces of broken window glass. They had no
motive, but they were convinced the fire had been set. And if it had been
set, who else but Willingham would have set it?
With no real motive in sight, the local district attorney, Pat Batchelor,
was quoted as saying, "The children were interfering with his beer
drinking and dart throwing."
Willingham was arrested and charged with capital murder.
When official suspicion fell on Willingham, eyewitness testimony began to
change. Whereas initially he was described by neighbors as screaming and
hysterical "My babies are burning up!" and desperate to have the
children saved, he now was described as behaving oddly, and not having
made enough of an effort to get to the girls.
And you could almost have guaranteed that a jailhouse snitch would emerge.
They almost always do. This time his name was Johnny Webb, a jumpy
individual with a lengthy arrest record who would later admit to being
"mentally impaired" and on medication, and who had started taking illegal
drugs at the age of 9.
The jury took barely an hour to return a guilty verdict, and Willingham
was sentenced to death.
He remained on death row for 12 years, but it was only in the weeks
leading up to his execution that convincing scientific evidence of his
innocence began to emerge. A renowned scientist and arson investigator,
Gerald Hurst, educated at Cambridge and widely recognized as a brilliant
chemist, reviewed the evidence in the Willingham case and began
systematically knocking down every indication of arson.
The authorities were unmoved. Willingham was executed by lethal injection
on Feb. 17, 2004.
Now comes a report on the case from another noted scientist, Craig Beyler,
who was hired by a special commission, established by the state of Texas
to investigate errors and misconduct in the handling of forensic evidence.
The report is devastating, the kind of disclosure that should send a
tremor through one's conscience. There was absolutely no scientific basis
for determining that the fire was arson, said Beyler. No basis at all. He
added that the state fire marshal who investigated the case and testified
against Willingham "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding
of fires." He said the marshal's approach seemed to lack "rational
reasoning" and he likened it to the practices "of mystics or psychics."
Grann told me on Monday that when he recently informed the jailhouse
snitch, Johnny Webb, that new scientific evidence would show that the fire
wasn't arson and that an innocent man had been killed, Webb seemed taken
aback. "Nothing can save me now, he said.
(source: Opinion, Bob Herbert, New York Times)
Texas Justice: Where wrongful convictions are the norm—-There's growing
evidence that Texas executed an innocent man in 2004.
A nationally-known fire expert told a Texas state commission on forensics
last week that the arson investigations that put 2 Texas men on death row
were poorly conducted and the forensic evidence couldn't be supported by
science, reported the Dallas Morning News.
One of the cases now in question is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who
was executed in February 2004 for setting his house on fire and killing
his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins. According to the study,
Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule that the house fire was
arson, a finding that led to Willingham's murder conviction and execution.
Willingham always maintained his innocence, and according to the New York
Times, "refused to accept a guilty plea that would have spared his life,
and insisted until his last painful breath that he was innocent."
The Chicago Tribune reported that the re-examination of the Willingham
case comes as many forensic disciplines face scrutiny for playing a role
in wrongful convictions that have been exposed by DNA and other scientific
advances. It's also a crucial case for Texas:
The finding comes in the 1st state-sanctioned review of an execution in
Texas, home to the country's busiest death chamber. If the commission
reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the 1st-ever declaration by
an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.
A Broken System
Wrongful convictions are familiar territory for Texas, a state that has
been in the hot seat for the past decade due to the alarming frequency of
exonerations. Texas is the state with the highest number of prisoners
found to be innocent following DNA testing, according to the Innocence
Project, a national organization working to exonerate wrongfully convicted
Of the 241 inmates that were found and had their convictions overturned as
a result of DNA testing since 1989, 38 have been in Texas. Combined these
38 men have spent more than 500 years in prison for crimes that they did
Just last month, DNA tests proved the innocence of Ernest Sonnier, a Texas
man who was convicted for a 1985 rape, and served 23 years of a life
prison sentence before he was released.
Sonnier was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison largely
based on the victim's testimony, even though the forensic evidence
gathered from her body and clothes showed that someone with a blood type
different from the defendant's had raped her, according the Innocence
Eyewitness misidentification has played a role in more than 84 % of all
wrongful convictions exposed by DNA in Texas (and at least 40 % of these
eyewitness identifications involved a cross racial identification),
according to the Innocence Project. In Texas, witness misidentification
has been a large issue for Dallas County, playing a role in the majority
of the county's slew of exonerations. Since 2001, 21 people in Dallas
County have had convictions overturned after DNA proved their innocence,
reported the Associated Press. That's a rate larger than any other county
in Texas, and larger in fact than many other states in the U.S.
Unvalidated or improper forensic science and forensic scientist misconduct
has also played a large role in wrongful convictions –accounting for
approximately 50 % of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA
testing, according to the Innocence Project. It was a combination of
witness misidentification and faulty testimony from a Houston Police
Department Crime Lab analyst that led to Sonnier's conviction. In fact,
Sonnier was the sixth man to be freed by new DNA testing and revelations
of faulty work, sloppy procedurals and false testimony by the HPD crime
As the Innocent Project said in a recent press statement:
Sonnier's is the latest in a string of cases where DNA testing has proven
inmates' innocence after wrongful convictions involving faulty forensics
at the HPD Crime Lab. Last year, Innocence Project client Ronnie Taylor
was exonerated through DNA testing after serving more than 13 years in
prison for a rape he didn't commit. In Taylor's case, a forensic analyst
claimed to have conducted testing for the presence of semen on evidence
from the crime scene and found none. Years later, DNA testing on the exact
same spot proved Taylor's innocence – and proved that the testing had
either never been done or had been conducted improperly, according to the
"For years, Houston has been ground zero in the national epidemic of
faulty forensic science," said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck.
"There are still thousands of cases from the Houston Crime Lab that need
to be reviewed, and that needs to happen quickly. In many ways, Houston is
a symptom of the root problem, which is a lack of national standards and
oversight for forensic science."
Human rights advocates have been pushing the Texas legislature to
implement a number of safeguards, some that would protect against faulty
forensics and prosecutorial misconduct, and reform interrogation and
eyewitness identification procedures. Earlier this year, a bill mandating
best practices for both photo and in-person lineups to minimize false
identifications died in the Texas legislature. But in May the Texas
legislature did succeed in passing the Tim Cole Compensation Act. The bill
was named for Timothy Cole, who died in jail before DNA testing revealed
that he had been convicted for a rape which he in fact did not commit. The
Tim Cole Act goes into affect on Sept. 1 and increases lump sum payments
to the exonerated from the current $50,000 to $80,000 for each year of
The Death Penalty
A Facing South has reported, executions have become a Southern phenomenon
in many ways. In fact, the South has performed 80 % of all executions
since 1977, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2008, 95
% of all executions were in the South.
More troubling is the fact that almost 50 % of all executions in 2008 were
performed in Texas. Human rights advocates find it troubling that Texas
not only leads the nation in executions by a wide margin, but it also
leads the nation in wrongful convictions. In 2008 alone, 7 people were
executed from Dallas County, a county soaring with wrongful convictions.
Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row with
evidence of their innocence, according to the DPIC. Nationally, 17 of the
241 people exonerated so far through DNA have served time on death row.
The Southern death penalty was a hot topic of news this summer. In
Georgia, the high-profile case of Troy Davis got the nation talking about
the possibility of a wrongful conviction. As Facing South reported, Davis,
who has always maintained his innocence, received a rare ruling from the
U.S. Supreme Court in August that would allow him a new hearing. That same
week in Texas, Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Criminal
Court of Appeals, went on trial. She was prosecuted for misconduct after
callously refusing to keep her office open beyond 5:00 p.m. to allow
lawyers for a death row inmate, Michael Richard, to file a last minute
appeal for a stay of execution. Now the nation waits to hear if the
charges will be dropped against her, or if she will be reprimanded or
removed from office.
As the New York Times editorial page noted on these two recent
Judge Keller's profound lack of appreciation for the seriousness of taking
a life — and the obligations it places on the state — is similar to the
disturbing dissent that Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas
delivered this week in the Troy Davis case. They suggested there was no
constitutional problem with executing a man who could prove he was
Willingham and Sonnier are just two of the latest cases that highlight the
ongoing problem of wrongful convictions in Texas and across the nation.
Tangentially, the cases of Keller and Davis have also shone a light on the
deep problems intrinsic in the country's system of capital punishment.
Before his execution, Willingham told the Associated Press: "The most
distressing thing is the state of Texas will kill an innocent man and
doesn't care they're making a mistake."
And the question on many people's minds this week: How many more
Willingham's exist on Texas' death row?
(source: Facing South)