In 2004 the State of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham by drug injection. Governor Perry allowed the execution to proceed by not granting a 30 day stay of execution. Willingham had been convicted of murdering his three young daughters by arson, by intentionally burning down his home. His daughters died in the fire. The date was December 1991. Now many are saying that Texas executed an innocent man. This information comes from the New Yorker magazine article “Trial by Fire,” by David Grann.
Article, “Trial by Fire,” Presents a Strong Case for Innocence.
This very detailed article examines extensively all the evidence and background information surrounding the case.
The article states that the fire investigators testified that there was no doubt that the fire was arson.
The article also says that one of the psychiatrists who appeared for the prosecution and “suggested that that Willingham was an ‘extremely severe sociopath,'” was expelled 3 years later “from the American Psychiatric Association for violation of ethics.” The charge was that he “had repeatedly arrived at a ‘psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts.'”
A “unanimous guilty verdict” was given by the jury after only an hour of deliberation.
The following scenario is from the same article.
After conducting the normal lengthy series of appeals, Willingham’s lawyer sent a file of arson evidence to a noted fire investigator. After a lengthy investigation he concluded “that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on ‘junk science.'”
The report was rushed to the office of Governor Rick Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles, to no avail. The board rejected the pardon request and Governor Perry refused to issue a 30 day stay of execution. Willingham was told that “The Governor made his decision based on the facts of the case.”
The CNN web article by Matt Smith, ” Shake-up in Texas Execution Probe draws Criticism,” gives the following scenario of events in the years after the 2004 execution of Willingham.
In 2008, the Texas State Forensic Science Commission hired an arson expert to investigate the Willingham case to determine innocence or guilt. A finding that the fire was not arson would exonerate Willingham. The arson expert released a report in August 2009 stating “that arson was not the likely cause of the 1991 fire.” Two other previous investigative reports had stated the same opinion.
The arson expert was scheduled to appear before the commission to discuss the report. The appearance did not take place because two days before, Governor Rick Perry dismissed the commission chairman and two other commission members. The members’ terms had expired but two of the dismissed members stated they had asked to remain to continue the investigation. The released report by the arson expert, stated “the state fire marshal who testified in Willingham’s trial approached his job with an attitude ‘more characteristic of mystics or psychics’ than with that of a detective who followed scientific standards.”
Governor Perry “refused to issue a last-minute stay of execution for Willingham in 2004 and has said he remains confident that Willingham was guilty.”
A Dallas Morning News editorial, on the website dallasnews.com, “Editorial: Perry’s Willingham Delay,” is very critical of Governor Perry’s actions. They say, “Since Perry signed off on the Willingham execution in 2004, his own accountability is at stake. So it’s no surprise that two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to proceed with the case this week, Perry replaced the chairman and set things back.”
They also state, “Perry has all but dismissed what the commission’s ultimate findings may be anyway. The governor has told this newspaper that the evidence was ‘overwhelming’ against Willingham.”
David Grann, the author of the article. “Trial by Fire.” concluded “that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the ‘execution of a legally and factually innocent person.'”
Proof of a Wrongful Execution Would Re-shape the Capital Punishment Debate.
Capital punishment opponents have been waiting for years for proof that an innocent person has been executed. A central argument of capital punishment proponents is that it has never been proven that an innocent person has been executed. The problem with that argument is that, until the Willingham case appeared, so little effort was expended to try to prove the innocence of someone after execution.
If Governor Perry appoints the required number of new board members to the Texas State Forensic Science Commission, they will surely resume investigation of the Willingham case. Since it has received such extensive national attention, it would be difficult to cancel the investigation completely.
In recent years, the science of DNA testing has resulted in the exoneration and release of scores of wrongly convicted people. Several of these were on death row. If it had not been for the efforts of some organizations dedicated to correcting this miscarriage of justice, most of these “death row” residents would have been executed eventually.
Logic tells us that since so many prisoners are being freed by DNA testing, there were several innocent prisoners executed, before the advent of DNA testing.
I am sure that most of the capital punishment advocates would never want to execute an innocent person. I have met a few people who believe that a few wrongful executions is the necessary price we pay for the benefits they perceive from capital punishment. I am sure they would not believe this if they thought there was even the slightest chance that they could ever find themselves in that situation.
I am in definitely in favor of life imprisonment without parole for capital crimes. Then, if the person’s innocence is discovered, they can be released. To those frugal individuals who want to execute criminals so we don’t need to feed them for a lifetime, I say that the cost of the legal appeals is far more than the cost of care for a lifetime.
Finally, I ask you to imagine yourself wrongfully convicted and on “death row,” knowing that you are innocent. It is hard to imagine anything worse. Can you honestly say it is impossible?
Matt Smith “Shake-up in Texas Execution Probe Draws Criticism, Questions” cnn.com
“Editorial: Perry’s Willingham Delay.” Dallasnews.com (Dallas Morning News)
David Grann/”Trial by fire”/newyorker.com