Friday, September 25, 2009

Execution Of Cameron Todd Willingham Points To Death Penalty's Ultimate Injustice

Our criminal justice system, like any human enterprise, sometimes rules in error. As long as we have capital punishment, we will inevitably execute the innocent. Of all the arguments against the death penalty, this ultimate injustice has to be the most compelling. The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (left) forms a tragic case in point. As the New York Times editorialized in "Questions About An Execution:

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.

...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.

Mr. Beyler issued a report last week that painted an ugly picture of what passes for expert scientific investigation and testimony in a capital case in Texas. The report found that the official inquiry into the Willingham fire did not meet prevailing scientific standards of the time, much less current ones.

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.

The New Yorker published an outstanding piece on the case, "Trial By Fire" by David Grann (9/7/09). The unscientific arson findings; the unreliable testimony of an unstable fellow prisoner; the doubtful trial statements of supposed medical experts who never met the defendant; and the failure of the Texas Court of Appeals to conduct an adequate review, including the findings of renowned scientist and arson expert Gerald Hurst, all point to a criminal justice system riddled with flaws yet ready to impose the ultimate, irreversible punishment. (In addition to the New Yorker article, I recommend Bob Herbert's "Innocent but Dead" (8/31/08) and the statement of The Innocence Project, which works to free the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing.)

AlterNet comments that the following video by comedian Lee Camp, while dealing with a case that is certainly not funny, satirically "lays bare the rotten core of U.S. capital punishment":


Texas Moratorium Network said...

Sign a petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

We plan to deliver the petition to Perry as part of the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on October 24 in Austin at the Texas Capitol.

Jeff Tone said...

Texas Moratorium Network: Thank you for your valuable work. It's especially needed in Texas. I signed the petition and urge all of my readers to do the same.

dudleysharp said...

Cameron Todd Willingham: Media meltdown & the death penalty:"Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?", by David Grann

Other articles on the Cameron Todd Willingham case