A little over a year ago I wrote about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Mr. Willingham was executed in Texas after being convicted of arson that killed his three small children. After being on death row for 12 years, he was executed in 2004. After his execution, evidence emerged that he was, in fact, innocent. Now Jonathan Alter has written a follow-up story.
“Why would you abolish the death penalty when a majority of the voters support it?” Republican Tom Foley asked Democrat Dan Malloy in a robust debate last week to help determine which man should be Connecticut’s next governor. “Why would you do that? It’s arrogant.”
Foley’s claim that it’s “arrogant” for officeholders to substitute their judgment for the wishes of the majority would, taken to its logical conclusion, mean that government could be run by a computer processing polls. Nice platform. Yet even a pandering argument can be revealing. Capital punishment may feel like abortion or gun control—a tired debate where minds can’t be changed. But there’s a discussion worth having about the hypocritical conservative attitude toward the life-and-death power of the state.
The Hawke-Petit home invasion case is the hot news right now in Connecticut with the jury now considering the death penalty for one of the men convicted of the murder and rape of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and the killing of her two daughters. Her husband survived to testify. While based on the evidence reported in the press, I believe that the accused men are likely guilty but should they be executed? I don’t think so.
Everything that I have read about Willingham indicates that there was forensic evidence of arson which was accepted by the jury. The evidence must have seem overwhelming, just as in the current Hawke-Petit case. But in the Willingham case, more evidence emerged.
And yet, just when you start thinking the death penalty isn’t such a bad idea after all, another house-fire murder case comes back into view, this one in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murder in 1992 after testimony that the house fire that killed his three young daughters (his wife was elsewhere) had been arson. But the conviction was based on junk science claiming evidence of accelerants where none existed. In the years since, nearly a dozen top fire inspectors have ruled out arson. A jailhouse snitch essentially recanted his testimony.
No matter. Willingham, the subject of a New Yorker piece last year, was executed in 2004. Afterward, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now clinging to a lead in the polls over former Houston mayor Bill White, seemingly did everything he could to cover up evidence clearing Willingham. Instead of allowing an investigation to proceed, Perry last year fired members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who exposed the “evidence” used to convict him. (Perry felt the commission was biased.)
“The governor’s office had access to an affidavit that it was faulty science, and either ignored it or dismissed it,” says former Texas governor Mark White (no relation to Bill). White, a Democrat who signed off on more than 20 executions as governor in the ’80s (though none as ill founded as Willingham’s), doesn’t oppose the death penalty. But now he says he’s appalled by how dysfunctional Texas’s criminal-justice system has become. The state, White says, has a huge backlog of DNA kits that have never been examined and too many publicity-seeking prosecutors willing to twist facts to win convictions. Texas, with a history of capital cases in which the defense attorney fell asleep at trial or ignored exculpatory evidence, often boasts more executions in a year than the rest of the country combined.
So now the family is left with trying to clear Cameron Todd Willingham’s name.
The flip side of the Lone Star honor culture is an unusual legal process for people to reclaim their reputations, even posthumously. The Willingham family won a hearing in a special court of inquiry. This week Mark White will deliver the summation in that court. He plans to argue that there’s “compelling evidence” the forensic evidence of arson was nonexistent. “The whole foundation of the case was arson,” White told me. “If there’s no arson, there’s no crime, and, therefore, he is innocent.” Innocent and dead.
I wish them the best. And I hope the jury in the Hawke-Petit case understands that their decision can be irrevocable.