More on the Cameron Todd Willingham Execution

Ken AshfordCrime3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed — wrongly, it seems — for the death of his daughters by intentionally committing arson (according to Texas prosecutors).

Hon. John Jackson, the judge in the case that led to Willingham's conviction, has spoken out.  I've excerpted his guest column in the Corsican Daily Sun.  I want to address his salient points, to show the poor quality of the judiciary in Texas:

In fact, the trial testimony you reported in 1991 contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.

Always omitted from any examination of the actual trial are the following facts:

1. The event which caused the three childrens' deaths was the third attempt by Todd Willingham to kill his children established by the evidence. He had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages;

Then why does his own wife deny these so-called "vicious attacks"?  Besides, past bad behavior, even if true, carries only circumstantial evidentiary weight.  Not all wife-beaters commit murder — in fact, most don't.

2. The “well-established burns” suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself;

"Suggest"?  That constitutes "over-whelming evidence of guilt"?  Besides, scientific experts believe that his burns were consistent with the type of fire at Willingham's house.

3. Blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the homicide revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke, contrary to his statement which detailed “rescue attempts;”

According to this New Yorker article, Willingham didn't try to rescue his family, although he told investigators he did.  He fled from the burning house because he was scared.  He was ashamed of his cowardice (although he did try to go back in, only to be stopped by firefighters).  He admitted it later on.  But lying about "rescue attempts" is not evidence that he started the fire.

4. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination. Such opportunity was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner;

This is an embarrassment to the judiciary of Texas.  Polygraphs are inadmissible in court because they lack reliability as evidence.  Refusal to take a polygraph, likewise, isn't evidence of guilt either.  Willingham was (wisely) told by his lawyers not to take the polygraph, and he didn't.  To use that now as evidence of his guilt is incredibly corrupt.  Judge Johnson should know this.

5. Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. His violent nature was further established by evidence of his vicious attacks on animals which is common to violent sociopaths;

This is, again, indirect and almost prejudicial evidence at best.  It's like saying — well, most violent criminal has a bad childhood; Person X has a bad childhood; therefore, he must have committed a violent crime.  Sorry, that doesn't cut it. 

By the way, a prosecution expert who testified that Willingham was a “sociopath” was expelled from his professional association just three years later for unethical behavior, including making diagnoses without examining people. Willingham’s former probation officer and a judge both directly refute any notion that he was a sociopath.

6. Witness statements established that Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, “You're not the one who was supposed to die.” (The origin of the fire occured in the infant twins bedroom) and;

A grievingfather telling his daughter she wasn't supposed to die isn't evidence of guilt.  There remains the distinct, indeed likely, possibility that he was speaking metaphysically — i.e., that she was too young to die.  As for the origin of the fire, even the experts at trial (who, even the judge agrees produced a "flawed forensic report") couldn't find evidence of arson in the twins' bedroom)

7. Any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.

According to this, the refrigerator was covering a back door because there were two refrigerators in the small kitchen. The police detective and the fire chief who handled the case both now say that the refrigerator’s location does not support the theory that the fire was arson.

The judge adds:

Co-counsel Alan Bristol and I offered Willingham the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty in return for a sentence of life imprisonment. Such offer was rejected in an obscene and potentially violent confrontation with his defense counsel.

And isn't that how an innocent man might act?

Here's the bottom line.  Could Willingham have committed arson, intending to kill his twin daughters?  Sure, if you stack the evidence the right way, and ignore other evidence, it's certainly possible.  But we don't convict people, and certainly don't sentence them to death, on being able to construct a scenario in which the murder is a "possible" truth.  The standard is (even in Texas) "guilt beyond a resonable doubt".

Anyone assessing all the hard facts (or lack thereof) objectively would have a doubt, and that doubt is reasonable.  Flawed expert evidence and "circumstantial" evidence was enought to construct a plausible story about how Willingham could have murdered his children.  But those things, even taken together, should never have resulted in a conviction.

I alluded to it before, but this long read in the The New Yorker is worth it.