Cameron Todd Willingham and the Death Penalty

I haven’t had the chance to read the article in the New Yorker Magazine by David Grann but Bob Herbert has written a powerful op-ed in today’s New York Times about Cameron Willingham’s execution by the State of Texas.

There is a long and remarkable article in the current New Yorker about a man who was executed in Texas in 2004 for deliberately setting a fire that killed his three small children. Rigorous scientific analysis has since shown that there was no evidence that the fire in a one-story, wood frame house in Corsicana was the result of arson, as the authorities had alleged.

In other words, it was an accident. No crime had occurred.

Cameron Todd Willingham, who refused to accept a guilty plea that would have spared his life, and who insisted until his last painful breath that he was innocent, had in fact been telling the truth all along.

The fire broke out on the morning of Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham was awakened by the cries of his 2-year-old daughter, Amber. Also in the house were his year-old twin girls, Karmon and Kameron. The family was poor, and Willingham’s wife, Stacy, had gone out to pick up a Christmas present for the children from the Salvation Army.

Willingham said he tried to rescue the kids but was driven back by smoke and flames. At one point his hair caught fire. As the heat intensified, the windows of the children’s room exploded and flames leapt out. Willingham, who was 23 at the time, had to be restrained and eventually handcuffed as he tried again to get into the room.

According to Grann and Herbert,  an incompetent arson investigator decided the fire was arson, witnesses decided that Willingham had not tried to rescue his children and there was a jailhouse snitch.   Herbert continues

Willingham was arrested and charged with capital murder.

When official suspicion fell on Willingham, eyewitness testimony began to change. Whereas initially he was described by neighbors as screaming and hysterical — “My babies are burning up!” — and desperate to have the children saved, he now was described as behaving oddly, and not having made enough of an effort to get to the girls.

And you could almost have guaranteed that a jailhouse snitch would emerge. They almost always do. This time his name was Johnny Webb, a jumpy individual with a lengthy arrest record who would later admit to being “mentally impaired” and on medication, and who had started taking illegal drugs at the age of 9.

The jury took barely an hour to return a guilty verdict, and Willingham was sentenced to death.

He remained on death row for 12 years, but it was only in the weeks leading up to his execution that convincing scientific evidence of his innocence began to emerge. A renowned scientist and arson investigator, Gerald Hurst, educated at Cambridge and widely recognized as a brilliant chemist, reviewed the evidence in the Willingham case and began systematically knocking down every indication of arson.

The authorities were unmoved. Willingham was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.

The fundamental problem with the death penalty is that you can’t take it back. 

Now comes a report on the case from another noted scientist, Craig Beyler, who was hired by a special commission, established by the state of Texas to investigate errors and misconduct in the handling of forensic evidence.

The report is devastating, the kind of disclosure that should send a tremor through one’s conscience. There was absolutely no scientific basis for determining that the fire was arson, said Beyler. No basis at all. He added that the state fire marshal who investigated the case and testified against Willingham “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires.” He said the marshal’s approach seemed to lack “rational reasoning” and he likened it to the practices “of mystics or psychics.”

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the State of Texas on no evidence.  Who will pay for his death?

What I did on my vacation

If I were President Obama, I would have to write something like this “I was going on vacation but there was a hurricane so I was late.  Then my advisors said I had to make an announcement about reappointing the Fed Chairman.  Then one of my best friends died and I had to write his eulogy and attend the funeral.  All I really wanted to do was to spend a week more or less out of the public eye and hang out with the family and the dog, maybe some friends.  Oh, well.”

Obamas on Vacation

I think we should actually be concerned that the President didn’t really have a vacation.    Here the First Family is arriving, full of hope for a fun time. 

Barack Obama goes biking with his daughters.

Then one of the few times he did something fun in public, he got criticized for not wearing a helmut. 

We need to lighten up.  There is a happy medium between the, to my mind, excessive vacationing done by George W. Bush and Obama’s measly, not quite a week.  There is also a medium between Bill Clinton many public times when he was on the Vineyard and W. hiding on his ranch.

As Susan Jacoby wrotes in the introduction to her discussion blog in the Washington Post

Why would a president, having just had the delightful experience of speaking at town hall meetings to which some upstanding citizens saw fit to carry loaded guns, need a vacation with his wife and daughters? Incredibly, President Obama is being criticized by the political right for his decision to spend a few more days on vacation with his family at Camp David next week. Of course, no president is ever really on vacation; his day always begins with a lengthy national security briefing and he is always out of touch with advisers on important issues. In this case, the family’s five days on Martha’s Vineyard have already been shortened by the inevitable political and personal duties associated with the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. It seems to me that there is an ethical blindness about this country’s obsession with working—or appearing to work—24/7.

I, for one, an suspicious of anyone who never takes a vacation.  Everyone needs some time away from the world in which they reside most of the time – a different location, a different rhythm to the day, a new experience.  I just do not understand those who think that President Obama should not vacation while there is a deficit or whatever the person’s issue is. 

I hope the President enjoys his few days a Camp David this week despite his daily briefings.  Come back and we will tackle health care, Mr. President.  With a public option.