Frontline Exposes Willingham Execution

Ken AshfordCourts/Law, CrimeLeave a Comment

I've written in the past — here and here and here — about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in the state of Texas, a state which has a disturbing record of getting it wrong when it comes to death penalty cases.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the state of Texas on February 17, 2004 after having been found guilty by a jury at trial back in 1992.  The trial stemmed from a 1991 fire in the Willingham household in which Willingham's three daughters died.

The case came into national prominence after Willingham's execution when Texas governor Rick Perry tried to bury it.  A state commission on arson was about to conclude that Texas forensic "experts" (who were nothing but glorified firefighters) were dead wrong when they concluded that the fire was intentionally set.  Perry basically replaced the commission, rather than have that report released.  And that's who most people came to know about Willingham in the first place.

Last night, PBS' Frontline did a nice expose on the Willingham case and execution, interviewing some of the key players.  It was bone-chilling.

I was reminded of the documentary The Thin Blue Line, which focussed on another man — Randall Dale Adams — who was facing execution in Texas.  Basically, the police decided they had their man early on, and built a largely circumstantial case around it, using very thin evidence.  As a result of the film, Randall Adams was freed and pardoned.

The scary thing about The Thin Blue Line was the interviews with Texas law enforcement.  One of them said, "When we interviewed Adams at the police stations, he kept saying he was innocent.  It was like, he was almost OVER-emphasizing he was innocent".  As it turned out, Adams WAS innocent, which probably explains why he was so emphatic.  But at the time, oddly, the fact that he "over"emphasized his innocence was looked upon as proof of guilt.

There was a lot of that in last night's Frontline documentary about Willingham.  How he (supposedly) didn't show enough remorse for the death of his children, etc.  The fact that he occasionally abused his wife.  That's what made people think he was guilty.

But was there evidence that Willingham actually set the fire that killed his three children?  Not according to the best experts in the country.  Did he have a motive?  No.

Anyway, if it re-airs, I suggest you take a gander.  This type of thing happens all the time in this country, especially in Texas.