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Friday, September 04, 2009

More on the Cameron Todd Willingham Execution

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed -- wrongly, it seems -- for the death of his daughters by intentionally committing arson (according to Texas prosecutors).

Hon. John Jackson, the judge in the case that led to Willingham's conviction, has spoken out.  I've excerpted his guest column in the Corsican Daily Sun.  I want to address his salient points, to show the poor quality of the judiciary in Texas:

In fact, the trial testimony you reported in 1991 contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.

Always omitted from any examination of the actual trial are the following facts:

1. The event which caused the three childrens' deaths was the third attempt by Todd Willingham to kill his children established by the evidence. He had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages;

Then why does his own wife deny these so-called "vicious attacks"?  Besides, past bad behavior, even if true, carries only circumstantial evidentiary weight.  Not all wife-beaters commit murder -- in fact, most don't.

2. The “well-established burns” suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself;

"Suggest"?  That constitutes "over-whelming evidence of guilt"?  Besides, scientific experts believe that his burns were consistent with the type of fire at Willingham's house.

3. Blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the homicide revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke, contrary to his statement which detailed “rescue attempts;”

According to this New Yorker article, Willingham didn't try to rescue his family, although he told investigators he did.  He fled from the burning house because he was scared.  He was ashamed of his cowardice (although he did try to go back in, only to be stopped by firefighters).  He admitted it later on.  But lying about "rescue attempts" is not evidence that he started the fire.

4. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination. Such opportunity was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner;

This is an embarrassment to the judiciary of Texas.  Polygraphs are inadmissible in court because they lack reliability as evidence.  Refusal to take a polygraph, likewise, isn't evidence of guilt either.  Willingham was (wisely) told by his lawyers not to take the polygraph, and he didn't.  To use that now as evidence of his guilt is incredibly corrupt.  Judge Johnson should know this.

5. Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. His violent nature was further established by evidence of his vicious attacks on animals which is common to violent sociopaths;

This is, again, indirect and almost prejudicial evidence at best.  It's like saying -- well, most violent criminal has a bad childhood; Person X has a bad childhood; therefore, he must have committed a violent crime.  Sorry, that doesn't cut it. 

By the way, a prosecution expert who testified that Willingham was a “sociopath” was expelled from his professional association just three years later for unethical behavior, including making diagnoses without examining people. Willingham’s former probation officer and a judge both directly refute any notion that he was a sociopath.

6. Witness statements established that Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, “You're not the one who was supposed to die.” (The origin of the fire occured in the infant twins bedroom) and;

A grievingfather telling his daughter she wasn't supposed to die isn't evidence of guilt.  There remains the distinct, indeed likely, possibility that he was speaking metaphysically -- i.e., that she was too young to die.  As for the origin of the fire, even the experts at trial (who, even the judge agrees produced a "flawed forensic report") couldn't find evidence of arson in the twins' bedroom)

7. Any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.

According to this, the refrigerator was covering a back door because there were two refrigerators in the small kitchen. The police detective and the fire chief who handled the case both now say that the refrigerator’s location does not support the theory that the fire was arson.

The judge adds:

Co-counsel Alan Bristol and I offered Willingham the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty in return for a sentence of life imprisonment. Such offer was rejected in an obscene and potentially violent confrontation with his defense counsel.

And isn't that how an innocent man might act?

Here's the bottom line.  Could Willingham have committed arson, intending to kill his twin daughters?  Sure, if you stack the evidence the right way, and ignore other evidence, it's certainly possible.  But we don't convict people, and certainly don't sentence them to death, on being able to construct a scenario in which the murder is a "possible" truth.  The standard is (even in Texas) "guilt beyond a resonable doubt".

Anyone assessing all the hard facts (or lack thereof) objectively would have a doubt, and that doubt is reasonable.  Flawed expert evidence and "circumstantial" evidence was enought to construct a plausible story about how Willingham could have murdered his children.  But those things, even taken together, should never have resulted in a conviction.

I alluded to it before, but this long read in the The New Yorker is worth it.

Comments

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Dear Ken.

You have done a great service by posting this thoughtful piece. This is the exact thought process in most intelligent people's minds. How is it possible that after the scientific discovery regarding the arson, this incompetent judge and others are still stating their assertion that Willingham was guilty, based on almost ZERO evidence?

I remember reading recently that one of the jurors- a woman- said recently that even if there were no proof of arson, she still would have given him a guilty verdict because "he didn't try to rescue the children." This is shocking to me that anyone could possibly say this. This juror should be put in jail for the crime of murder. She in essence is saying that because he didn't seem to try hard enough to rescue people in a burning house that killed his children, he is therefore guilty of murdering them, even without any proof or arson.

This kind of thinking is from the Dark Ages and is not befitting of a human being. Was she there? Did she see the fire herself? Studies have shown that there is no way to tell how a person might behave in a distressing traumatic event such as a house fire. Personally, I have no idea what I would have done because I wasn't there, but I would probably have done what Cameron did; meaning, leave the house and get professional help immediately. Is this not exactly what he did?

And aren't we brought up as children to do the same? We are always taught to seek professional help regarding fires and other incidents. In fact, I don't ever recall my parents or anyone telling me at any point in my life that I should enter a burning house filled with smoke and flames. First of all, I would think that I could make things worse. For example, aren't we advised not to move a victim who has been injured in a particular way for concern of causing further injury?

Why are ignorant sheep allowed to determine whether a person lives or dies? Willingham indeed got help and was refrained BY HANDCUFFS by the police when he courageously, and unwisely, attempted to get his children. This is on record. How could this juror, or anyone, say there was no effort to rescue the children? If he wanted to murder his kids, why then did he even go to the neighbors to have them call the fire department?

Most appalling is this: Some witness, a neighbor I believe, said the fire wasn't that bad at the time of the call to the fire department and that he could have gone in to get the children. She said there were no big flames, just a lot of smoke. Well if that were true, then it only further supports the fact that he did not kill his kids, because if he wanted the kids dead, he would have waited longer before calling the fire department. And why then didn't the neighbor go up to him and see if she could assist? Why didn't she tell him to go get them? Why didn't she go get them herself? If she were so judgmental about his not getting the children, why didn't she get them?

This case was tried in just a few days I believe. There was no care taken to fully assess the witnesses testimonies. No one thought at first that he set the fire. It was only AFTER the arson "experts" started spewing their crap that the witnesses started changing their tune. THEY WERE SWAYED. They were not able to think for themselves. These were small town people who were likely uneducated and inexperienced in these matters. They must have led very boring lives and welcomed the excitement. I know these kinds of people because I lived in a small town for many years. SHAME ON ALL OF THE JURORS.

There are too many factors involved that should have been given months to clear up before condemning this man to death. Why did the OJ trial take so long and this one take only a few days? The jurors and people of this town who arrogantly proclaimed this innocent man guilty should have to serve a life sentence, or even be given lethal injection themselves. But that will not happen, so I leave the justice to god, karma, or whatever one may call it.

There is too much to write about this case. Thank you for debunking some of the lies. There are others too, such as the bizarre assertion from the doctor in the hospital stating that he was concerned only about his own wounds. Why should we heed a strange testimony by a doctor who could not see that this man was traumatized and didn't know what he was saying at the time, yet alone what was going on around him. Men in general behave much differently in traumatic times. How could this doctor say that his behavior was "inappropriate?" Surely she must have known that his twins were just burnt to a crisp. Who would proclaim any judgement on anyone at a time like that? Unless he were acting in some manner far worse and disturbing than "inappropriate," this pathetic testimony by a professional should never have even been publicized and eluded to by the judge in his article.

Furthermore, the doctor's account completely contradicts the assertion made by others that Willingham was "overly upset about his children's deaths." If he wanted to show fake distress, wouldn't he have shown it in the hospital too? This whole trial was such total evil nonsense. All of it. These jurors jumped on every bit of WEAK evidence and condemned a man to lethal injection. They seemed to have no problem with this.

And if Cameron wanted to kill the children, why did he do it at 9 AM on a bright morning two days before Christmas when everyone is up and getting ready for Christmas shopping and could easily have interfered by calling the fire department? One might say that mentally ill people don't think clearly. Then by that statement, everyone responsible for the conviction of this innocent man is also mentally ill.

Also, the prosecutors said that Cameron wanted to get of the children because they were interfering with his lifestyle. I might ask, don't all parents sometime think this? OF COURSE children get in the way of what we want to do sometimes, maybe most of the time. Of course they interfere with our lifestyle! That doesn't make us bad parents.

I read in the New Yorker article that Cameron was actually a good father who gave up a lot of "good times" for his kids, as do most parents. How can anyone state this as a motive for murder? How does setting one's house on fire to murder one's children improve one's lifestyle? A man like Cameron, with no prior history of mental illness, would have opted out of murdering his own children as a means of improving his lifestyle. Look what it got him after all; his lifestyle certainly didn't improve. He lost his life, taken from him by people who must have had a far more desperate "lifestyle" than Cameron ever had; people so bored and vapid that they were swayed by the opinions of others at this bogus trial.

They must have found something exciting about all of this. They must have been titillated with themselves over being able to find the bad guy and to solve a good mystery, like solving a crossword puzzle. They must have thought they were breaking new ground with their newfound brilliant "thinking." Nothing like this had ever happened in their town before, and they all wet their pants over this thrill. Give them power on top of it, and the guilty verdict was inevitable. Cameron was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fell victim to two of the very worst of all human traits: arrogance and ignorance.

And rather than making amends for what they have done, Judge Jackson and others from Corsicana have made things worse by holding to their assertions that Willingham was guilty. They are afraid to face the truth. They do not want to admit that they "fried" an innocent man. Would anyone want to admit that? It is incredibly painful I would imagine, but we must face truth and learn from mistakes so that we may grow as men and women, and so we can prevent such horrific disasters from happening again.

In memory of Cameron Todd Willingham (1968-2004)

Darren Motise

NY

I have said from the first time I heard this that the mother of these children started the fire before she left the house. I haven't any proof but that she is a vendicative person and it would not surprise me if she did it to get back at Cameron for cheating on her. I know that Cameron loved those kids and was a very good father and I don't beleive that he would have hurt them. I think that an innocent man was executed. I am glad that this is being looked at I just wished somebody would have paid attention before he was executed. As an law enforcement you have a gut feeling about things and my gut says they executed the wrong person. The wife Stacy is the one that came out smelling like a rose and I believe ended up with insurance money from the deaths of her children. Also knowing the small town mentality of those people things are always judged wrong and these people are always willing to jump on the band wagon and ready to execute somebody whether they know the truth or not. Please do not print name.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, is a Buffoon, as are all the negligent Public Officials in this case. Perry has even talked of Secession from the United States. Sheer Buffoonery! Does he not realize how serious such an act of Treason would be, how the firing on Fort Sumter led to the US Civil War of Rebellion, in which more US Citizens died than all other US Wars put together? Are most Republican Governors turning out to be Buffoons?

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