Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Did Texas kill an innocent man?

The New Yorker has an excellent piece on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted of the murder of his three children, who died when the family's house burned on December 23, 1991 in Corsicana, TX.

Willingham was tried and convicted in August of 1992, the State's case was largely based on the "scientific evidence" gathered by two arson investigators: Manuel Vasquez and Douglas Fogg. The trial took place after Willingham refused a deal for a life sentence that his attorneys begged him to take. Willingham said, "I ain't gonna plead to something I didn't do, especially killing my own kids."

Willingham maintained his innocence right up until his was executed on February 17, 2004. Willingham gave his last words before they pumped the the first drop of sodium thiopental into his veins: "The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne." The only "confession" he ever gave being an admission to his parents that he had lied about trying to crawl into his kids room during the fire, explaining: "I just did not want people to think I was a coward." This was a man who was not willing to go to his grave with something like that on his conscience, but is alleged to have committed a way-more unspeakable brutality.

I urge you to read the article. In reading it, please take notice of several things. First, look at how shitty the appeals process is. Despite the fact that it costs Texas $2.3 million to execute a prisoner, they sure aren't getting very good "protection" from liability are they? This is what a top policy adviser to then Gov. George W. Bush called "super due process?" Doesn't seem to "super" to me.

Second, look at how easily the witnesses testimony changed after-the-fact. Eye witness testimony is TERRIBLY UNRELIABLE. That quote from Itiel Dror, the cognitive psychologist, is great. The mind is not a passive machine. Once you believe in something--once you expect something--it changes the way you perceive information and the way your memory recalls it." I love movie quotes. Me and my friends have been saying the same quotes to each other for years. But you know what we discover? The quotes are often not exactly how we say them. But we've been saying them a certain way so often, that we believe "our" quote is the actual quote. Most often they are not.

Third, the "scientific evidence" offered to prove guilt at trial is often not "scientific" at all. To be science, it has to be subjected to the scientific method. Do you think that "CSI" guys take their hypothesis and attack the hell out of them? In other words, are they looking for dissimilarities or similarities? Hell...just look at fingerprint analysis? It looks for points of similarity, then seeks to prove a conclusion based on those. What about all those dissimilarities. You are supposed to work to disprove your conclusion, not prove it. Do you know what the requirement is to be a forensic technician? Anyone? Try a high school diploma and the passing of an exam. For too long, those of us in the criminal defense bar have done a bad job of challenging this type of evidence and testimony. Hopefully, the word is spreading that we have to attack this junk and keep it out of the courtroom.

Anyway, I strongly urge you to read the article. It is excellent. And it may very well lead to the State of Texas being the first state to acknowledge they actually carried out the "execution of a legally and factually innocent person."


Texas Moratorium Network said...

If you are shocked that Texas executed a person who was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, then join us in Austin at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.


At the 7th Annual March in 2006, the family of Todd Willingham attended and delivered a letter to Governor Perry that said in part:

“We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.”

“Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.”

pluvlaw said...

Thanks for the info. While I doubt anyone who reads this blog could make it, I have done a post about it. As someone who has done a good deal of work for SC's Innocence Project, I wish you guys the best of luck. Keep fighting the good fight.