Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting the fire in which his children died. David Grann dissected this dreadful prosecution in a 17-page article in the New Yorker. For the time-challenged, Dahlia Lithwick has produced the Cliff Notes version of the case in Slate: “The entire prosecution was a train wreck of eyewitness testimony that changed over time: a jailhouse snitch who was both mentally impaired and stood to benefit from testifying against Willingham, “expert” psychiatrists who never examined the accused but proclaimed him a “sociopath” based on his posters and tattoos, and local arson investigators whose conclusions were less rooted in science than a sort of spiritual performance art. And at every step in his appeals process, Willingham’s repeated claims of innocence were met with the response that he’d already had more than enough due process for a baby-killer.”
The New Yorker story details the investigative work of Dr. Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, who reviewed all the forensic evidence in the case, found no hint of arson, and wrote a detailed report for the fifteen member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Internal documents show that the report was received, but it is doubtful that board members read it.
Here is David Grann’s description of the board’s decision making process.
The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor’s office and the board pertaining to Hurst’s report. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” Barry Scheck said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”
LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the time, told me of the process, “You don’t vote guilt or innocence. You don’t retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order and there are no glaring errors.” He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, “in my time there had never been one called.” When I asked him why Hurst’s report didn’t constitute evidence of “glaring errors,” he said, “We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them.” Alvin Shaw, another board member at the time, said that the case didn’t “ring a bell,” adding, angrily, “Why would I want to talk about it?” Hurst calls the board’s actions “unconscionable.”
Unconscionable, but typical. According to Grann, “Between 1976 and 2004, when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas had approved only one application for clemency from a prisoner on death row.”
The accused arsonist was executed four days later.
Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he was asked if he had any last words. He said, “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 twelve 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.”