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August 31, 2009

Will new evidence of Texas executing an innocent man alter modern death penalty debates?

As detailed in this new New York Times editorial, headlined "Questions About an Execution," more folks are coming to the view that Texas executed an innocent man in 2004.  The editorial provides the basic facts and notes the standard abolitionist "innocence" argument that now seems stronger:

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.

Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.

After the fire, investigators decided, based in large part on burn patterns on the house’s floors, that it was intentionally set. Prosecutors charged Mr. Willingham, who escaped from the burning home, with capital murder. Mr. Willingham protested his innocence until the day the state killed him by lethal injection in 2004.

The following year, Texas created the Forensic Science Commission to investigate charges of scientific mistakes or misconduct, and the panel began looking into the Willingham case. It commissioned Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized fire expert, to examine evidence....

The report concluded that a “finding of arson could not be sustained.” The Forensic Science Commission is now asking the state fire marshal’s office for its response. It anticipates issuing a final report next year.

The 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.

And, this week's New Yorker has a this long detailed article on the Willingham case in which David Grann documents all the reasons why it should now be a lot easier for opponents of the death penalty to assert that at least one innocent person has been executed in the modern capital punishment era.

With nearly 1200 execution over the last three decades, I have long consider the claim that only guilty persons have been executed harder to believe than the claim that at least one innocent person has been wrongfully put to death.  But now it seems that abolitionists have a name and a face to associate with the sensible statistical assertion that even a careful death penalty system is bound to sometimes execute an innocent man.  Of course, even acknowledging Willingham's innocence, proponents of the death penalty can still assert that it seems we still get it right more than 99.9% of the time.  But will that be good enough as the modern death penalty debate goes forward?

August 31, 2009 at 12:15 PM | Permalink


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He said he did it. That's going to be enough to end the matter.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 31, 2009 12:32:02 PM

"Mr. Willingham protested his innocence until the day the state killed him by lethal injection in 2004. "

Posted by: . | Aug 31, 2009 12:56:21 PM

He confessed to a snitch.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 31, 2009 1:18:15 PM

Admittedly, I am not an expert on Willingham's case. But I did read the extremely long, detailed New Yorker piece, and saw nothing about a confession (quite the opposite, as "." suggests). If one exists somewhere else, please share.

What I'm reading about this case reinforces my view that, if this kind of thing is good enough for government work, then maybe the government shouldn't be allowed to kill people as part of the penal system.

Or maybe we just need to be more vigilant to make sure that big, incompetent, meddling government keeps its hands off our Medicare AND our death penalty.

Posted by: Observer | Aug 31, 2009 1:19:20 PM

So says the snitch. Since when do you trust the word of a criminal, Federalist?

Posted by: CN | Aug 31, 2009 1:21:28 PM

"Since when do you trust the word of a criminal, Federalist?"

When doing so advances my political agenda.

John, on behalf of federalist.

Posted by: John | Aug 31, 2009 1:42:29 PM

Another brilliant contribution from federalist.

Posted by: federalist is a moron | Aug 31, 2009 1:45:14 PM

You make a good point, Observer. We cannot allow government involvement in health care because our dysfunctional, incompetent government cannot do anything right and will just screw things up. But when our government adjudicates that someone has committed a crime, who are we to question that finding?

Posted by: CN | Aug 31, 2009 2:16:59 PM

Guys, instead of reading into what I wrote, why don't you actually engage the brain? I didn't say anything about the normative issues that this examination raises--I only said that his admission will settle the matter. And it's obvious why--Willingham hasn't been proven innocent. And that, my friends, is a fact of life. I didn't say that was right--just that it will settle the matter.

I doubt this creates more than a ripple. Too much wolf-crying and deniability for the prosecution.

And that's a shame--we always should strive to make our criminal justice system better.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 31, 2009 2:27:04 PM

somtehing about a confession: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-tc-nw-texas-execute-0824-082aug25,0,5812073.story

Posted by: = | Aug 31, 2009 2:27:06 PM

FYI, the prosecutor (now judge) defends the conviction:


Posted by: JDB | Aug 31, 2009 3:39:02 PM

I suggest that you folks read Dr. Beyler's report, and the report from the Arson Review Committee (an affiliate of the Innocence Project) that prompted the Texas FSC to commission Dr. Beyler's report.

The jailhouse snitch is and always was a wackadoo.

The judge (formerly Willingham's prosecutor) would never admit to such an unspeakable error, even if he now doubted the accuracy of the "fire science."

The fact is, the fire investigators had no clue what they were doing and called the fire arson when it really was an accident. This has happened to a surprising number of people, like Mr. Willis and a host of others. The problem is this: We ask well-meaning but uneducated firement to make sophistocated decisions about chemistry and physics. These men have a significant error rate, but they all look good to a jury.

The trial proceeds as follows: first the defendant is vilified, and the jury is repulsed by the heinousness of the "crime." By the time the state puts on their weak science case, the jury already has their mind made up.

Posted by: John Lentini | Aug 31, 2009 3:54:10 PM

Mr. Lentini, I read the New Yorker article. Your forthrightness in light of the Hurst and Beyler reports is admirable. Thank you for lending your view to this discussion.

Posted by: Def. Atty. | Aug 31, 2009 4:18:31 PM

"The judge (formerly Willingham's prosecutor) would never admit to such an unspeakable error, even if he now doubted the accuracy of the 'fire science.'"

How do you know? Maybe he thinks Willingham actually did it. I haven't looked at this case in detail in a while. But I seem to recall that he was oddly not all that worked up about his kids being killed.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 31, 2009 5:13:57 PM

I apologize to federalist for suggesting that nothing in the New Yorker piece mentioned a confession. Obviously, there was the jailhouse testimony.

Perhaps prolonged exposure to absurd and highly suspect jailhouse informant testimony has caused a short-circuit in my brain, such that I now need to remind myself that such testimony can be taken seriously in court and, if credited, can amount to an admission of guilt by the defendant!

Still, I am not convinced that such weak evidence of an admission will be determinative of whether this issue has any traction with the public.

Posted by: Observer | Aug 31, 2009 5:26:23 PM


Snitching Blog is about a part of our criminal system that most people know little or nothing about: criminal informants, or snitches. At any given moment, thousands of informants are trying to work off their own criminal liability by giving information to the government. These informants may be in court, in prison, on the street, or in the workplace. Police and prosecutors often rely heavily on information obtained from snitches--especially in drug enforcement but also in white collar crime, organized crime, and terrorism investigations. In fact, it is impossible to fully understand the U.S. legal system without understanding snitching. Nevertheless, there is very little public information available about this important public policy. That's where Snitching Blog comes in.

Posted by: Rev. Kobutsu Malone | Aug 31, 2009 7:44:30 PM

I love the way the criminal lover left wing lawyers wring their hands about the execution of one man, who may or may not be innocent. A huge big deal is made of it in a Commie propaganda organ, and everyone actually takes it seriously.

Meanwhile, 17,000 extra-judicial executions take place each year. Most do not meet Eighth Amendment muster. These murder victims do not generate lawyer income. So? Not a word from the chatty criminal lovers about them.

Meanwhile, the criminal lover abolitionists absolutely immunize all crimes of their client after the first murder. These criminals are nearly absolutely immunized before the first murder by the criminal lover lawyer. On average, you have to commit 100 felonies before anything will happen to you.

There is nothing to discuss with these extremists. Street justice should visit. The families of murder victims take their names, hunt them down, and beat their asses. Nothing will happen to these relatives until they have done it 100 times, because the lawyer has nearly absolutely immunized crime.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 31, 2009 8:21:09 PM

I think what gives this case the greatest possibility for traction is the claim is not that there was a murder but the defendant didn't do it; rather the claim -- now supported by multiple arson experts -- is that no crime occurred.

Posted by: dm | Aug 31, 2009 11:10:34 PM

Assume all the worries of the people here are true. There was no crime. The fire was an accident. If the fire even happened, the executed prisoner was completely innocent. This case was an appalling failure of the investigation, the Rules of Evidence and of the local judiciary.

These assumptions would illustrate the failure of the adversarial system of trial. It allowed an innocent person to be executed after spending likely 7 figures.

That adversarial system was copied from Scholasticist methodology. 1) The disputation is all they had as a method of reaching the truth in 1250 AD, the era in which the lawyer of today still operates. 2) It came from France, where they enjoy arguing. 3) It came from France where rent seeking is a national talent, generating income for something they love to do for free, argue.

And because Scholasticism is a church philosophy, the modern adversarial trial is not only obsolete, incompetent, worthless Medieval anti-scientific garbage, it violates the Establishment Clause. It has the scientific and legal invalidity of an Islamic court applying Sharia in a secular country. People would be outraged at the latter.

It's the indoctrination. People don't even know it took place. It is that good. People obliviously accept dangerous, expensive, Medieval garbage methodology trials. They even boast, this is the best system in the world.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 1, 2009 7:00:22 AM

No doubt exists that an innocent person has been executed -- Nebraska hanged a man for murdering a victim who could not be found and who turned up alive years later.


Posted by: Sentencing Observer | Sep 1, 2009 7:07:59 PM

The reason the system is too broke to fix is the prevalence of folks who, like federalist, are perfectly content to take the word of a snitch bargaining for a lighter sentence over a father whose hair caught on fire while trying to save his kids.

Posted by: John K | Sep 1, 2009 7:34:28 PM

"The reason the system is too broke to fix is the prevalence of folks who, like federalist, are perfectly content to take the word of a snitch bargaining for a lighter sentence over a father whose hair caught on fire while trying to save his kids."

Please point out where I have said that. You cannot. It's weak.

I was just making the observation that this case is likely to go nowhere because there is evidence that will be pointed to that he did it. That's just the way it is.

I am all in favor of making the system better to avoid false positives. Given the intense intellectual dishonesty of the abolitionist side, I don't think tossing rhetorical bombs my way is at all justified. DPIC's "Innocence List" is an exercise in sophistry. When, John K, you can admit that, then come talk to me about the fault of people with views like mine.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 1, 2009 7:58:05 PM

The guy was convicted on the following evidence

1. He testified that his kids cried out for help and awoke him

2. He passed their bedrooms to exit the house (his own testimony the guy was no brain surgeon)

3. Witnessess at the scene saw him examining the house for many minutes until neighbors gathered then he attempted a feble rescue attempt

4. He DID however manage to rescue his car from the burning Garage (he pushed it out)

5. He did indeed confess in prison and he new he was on trial for his life - people just dont usually do that

6. The Jury heard the arson report but most of the Jurors at the time said it was his actions at the scene that convinced them he did it

7. The report did not clear him - it just said that arson wasnt a given, but then again he did not definitively find another cause - and I believe it did rule out electrical as surges due happen during fires compounding any investigation

8. He had a long and extensive record

Posted by: EricPWJohnson | Sep 2, 2009 11:07:28 AM

But for the flawed arson report, the case EricPWJohnson lays out is circumstantial: the guy didn't act the way jurors and neighbors (probably none of whom ever awoke to find their homes ablaze) thought he should have acted...therefore his execution was justifiable.

I hope if I ever get in trouble EricPWJohnson isn't on my jury.

Posted by: John K | Sep 2, 2009 1:42:24 PM

John K, your response is pathetic. Yeah, I've never been in a fire, but leaving my kids to burn in the fire is simply unnatural. Who in their right mind would leave their kids behind??

You got some 'splainin' to do beyond the "you haven't walked in his shoes" nonsense.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 2, 2009 3:31:23 PM

The finding is not that it was

1)an accidental fire, as Lentini wrongly states or
2) not an arson fire.

The finding by Beyler was that a conclsuison of arson could not be upeld, because his "opinion" is that a falshover would make the evidence in this case, indistinquishable between arson and an accidental fire.

In other words, of course it could have been arson, but Beyler found that the evidence for arson, given at trial, could not be sustained, because the interpretation for arson was wrong, not because it wasn't arson, but because the evidence was wrongly interpreted.

We also, now know, that both the Crisicana Fire Dept and the Texas Fire Mashall's offcie are going to find Beyler's report in error, as well as biased.

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

2) No Doubts

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Oct 12, 2009 1:09:20 PM

Any reliance or conficdence in the New Yorker article is, sorely, misplaced.

"Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
"Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?", by David Grann


As more reality comes to light, the more into disrepute run's Grann's article.

My New Yorker reply was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall's report, above.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Oct 12, 2009 1:12:19 PM

Todd Willingham murdered his children.

"Trial by Fire" was a complete farce to the truth.

This is an update, through 2017

Rebuttal: "Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?"

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Dec 19, 2018 7:01:55 AM

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