Texas Executed An Innocent Man

The Chicago Tribune reports that a fire science expert retained by the State of Texas has concluded that there was no evidence of Arson in the December 1991 fire that killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three children. Willingham was convicted of murder and was executed in 2004.

In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule a deadly house fire was an arson — a finding that led to the murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in Texas, home to the country’s busiest death chamber. If the commission reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.

Indeed, the report concludes there was no evidence to determine that the December 1991 fire was even set, and it leaves open the possibility the blaze that killed three children was an accident and there was no crime at all — the same findings found in a Chicago Tribune investigation of the case published in December 2004.

Willingham, the father of those children, was executed in February 2004. He protested his innocence to the end.

[…]

Over the past five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation’s top fire scientists — first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project, and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson.

There are two questions that remain now: (1) Will the Texas Forensic Science Commission rule that Texas executed an innocent man? I’m not sure. (2) If it does, will Texas do anything to reform its criminal justice system in response? My guess is: probably not. But I can always hope…

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    What’s bizarre is: Why not conduct these investigations, say, before the trial? A wee bit late at this stage.

  2. odograph says:

    I’d be fine with excuting murderers, but I’ve heard far too many of these stories over the years. Now, I’d keep “death row” but use it differently. You stay there until you Governor thinks there is evidence to exonerate, or until you die.

    Oh, and no tv (or internets). NPR is OK, and might keep the innocent sane.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    (1) Will the Texas Forensic Science Commission rule that Texas executed an innocent man? I’m not sure.

    Prediction 1: No.

    Reason: Doing so would call into question every single case that the TFSC was involved with.

    Prediction 2: The SCOTUS will overturn or drastically reduce the implications of a recent ruling allowing the defense in criminal cases to cross examine forensic eperts.

    Reason: You can’t be too law and order these days and if innocents are executed, oh well.

    Of course, there is hope. The DA in Dallas is actually looking for cases like this. Its a bold move and he needs to get as much positive press as possible, but generally speaking this is a rather unpopular position to take. As I noted you can’t be too pro-Law & Order these days.

    Oh and with Sotomayor on the bench…gooooood luck. She’ll probably give Scalia a run for his money.

  4. Gustopher says:

    But who among us is truly innocent? If nothing else, we have the complicity in a justice system that executes people for crimes they didn’t commit.

    Less sarcastically, does this come as a surprise to anyone? Given the number of people executed, and the flaws in the system, how can we expect to not be killing people for crimes they didn’t commit?

  5. PD Shaw says:

    I personally believe the criminal justice system cannot be reformed sufficiently to support death penalty convictions, barring the most open and notorious killings. (The kind that are most likely to be committed by the mentally insane)

    Texas has long held the reputation of great efficiency in capital punishments, measured by speed. Anti-death penalty advocates have also always suspected that Texas would be the place to find proof of innocents executed.

  6. Ugh says:

    Willingham, the father of those children, was executed in February 2004. He protested his innocence to the end.

    Executed after being wrongly being convicted of killing your own children? My god how horrible.

  7. Steve Verdon says:

    Executed after being wrongly being convicted of killing your own children? My god how horrible.

    Justice: American style.

  8. William d'Inger says:

    I doubt that even in Texas he could have been tried unless someone had determined it was arson. Now, something like 18 years after the fact an “expert” decided it wasn’t? That latter day finding sounds WAY more fishy to me than the original determination. I’ll bet if you investigated the story in depth you’d find evidence of anti-death penalty zealots spinning the story for propaganda purposes.

  9. Trumwill says:

    This post’s title is pretty misleading. There is a difference between “might not have done it” and “innocent man”. To be sure, nobody should be executed on “might”. Being against the death penalty, I don’t think anyone should be executed period). But Willingham has not been exonerated of anything and is by most accounts a deeply unsympathetic figure to make a cause out of.

  10. just me says:

    I am also curious what other evidence they had for the conviction.

    Was the entire conviction based solely on the arson ruling or was their other evidence that point towards the father doing it?

    Granted I am not a big death penalty proponent. While I think it is a just punishment for somebody who murders an innocent person, I think life in prison without parole is a perfectly acceptable way to accomplish protecting society and punishing the offender, and you don’t have to worry about executing an innocent person. It is a whole lot easier to release somebody from prison than it is to raise somebody from the dead.

  11. Trumwill says:

    They had a violent history, an alleged jailhouse confession, a wife’s suspicion, unexpectedly cold response to the death of his children, and a failure to report the fire in the first place.

    Basically the guy (according to witnesses) invited all manner of suspicion by his response and demeanor.

    That being said, we shouldn’t put people to death for that. And absent an arson ruling, it’s exceptionally unlikely he would have been convicted. If he committed the crime, he may have deserved what he got in a cosmic sense. But it does not appear that there was sufficient grounds for the punishment. We don’t know that he didn’t do it, but we don’t know that he did, either.

  12. An expert offering a different opinion 17 years later is hardly exculpatory evidence. If he didn’t do it then this was a real tragedy and it is hard to imagine anything that can help ameliorate the damage done, but you still need the if to start that sentence.

  13. Mithras says:

    Why not conduct these investigations, say, before the trial?

    Do you understand the budgetary constraints? Because public defenders’ offices are way underfunded. Do you want to pony up the cash to pay for more investigators? No, I didn’t think so. Then it will fall to organizations like the Innocence Project to do post-appeal inquiries. Which takes time, because you have to wait until all the appeals are exhausted before someone might devote the resources to helping you. So it ends up being 18 years before the DNA or the other exculpatory evidence is found. And guess what? The Innocence Project can only take the smallest fraction of meritorious claims that they see, because they are grant-funded and have very limited budgets.

  14. Furhead says:

    Now, something like 18 years after the fact an “expert” decided it wasn’t? That latter day finding sounds WAY more fishy to me than the original determination.

    … and …

    An expert offering a different opinion 17 years later is hardly exculpatory evidence.

    Are you guys reading the whole post, or are you just hellbent on defending the criminal justice system and/or death penalty at all costs? It’s not one rogue “expert”, it’s NINE experts in three different reviews who have all concluded the same thing.

    Trumwill offers real reasons why the guy might have been guilty. The original arson “investigation” is not one of them.

  15. William d'Inger says:

    I am naturally suspicious when experts come to the conclusions sought by the people who employ them. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just casts a shadow of doubt. Anyway, there are far too few facts presented here to say anything other than maybe there was a miscarriage of justice.

  16. Our Paul says:

    Nice post Alex. One of the problems (among many I may add), is that there is no formal state supported Public Defender’s Office, although such offices may be supported by counties. This may change, if the proposed new office is effective.

    William d’Inger (August 26, 2009 | 05:08 pm) is of course right. As a card carrying anti-death penalty zealot spinning the story it should also condemn me as suffering from the Bush derangement syndrome. During Bush’s six years as Governor, Texas executed 152 people-a modern-day record for a governor. To his credit, he maintained absolute confidence in the Texas judiciary system, and to prove it vetoed attempts to reform the Public Defender system.

    But hey mon, no to sound contrary, but as the leader of the free world, shouldn’t we lead in incarceration rate and executions? Fortunately fans can get their updates here.

  17. Steve Verdon says:

    An expert offering a different opinion 17 years later is hardly exculpatory evidence.

    How about 9?

    Are you guys reading the whole post, or are you just hellbent on defending the criminal justice system and/or death penalty at all costs?

    If I had to make a guess, I’d say no and yes.

    I am naturally suspicious when experts come to the conclusions sought by the people who employ them.

    First off the guy who would benefit the most is dead, has been for awhile now. Second, alot of research is paid for by someone. So technically this view when taken to an extreme is nihilistic and anti-science and anti-reason.

    Anyway, there are far too few facts presented here to say anything other than maybe there was a miscarriage of justice.

    Isn’t that enough? If I ever see you making a comment about the incompetence, stupidity, and basic failures of government on any other topic I will immediately point out that you don’t let this stop in supporting the state sanctioned taking of human life. In other words your position can be restated as, “Well maybe he’s guilty so lets kill him.”

    Did you guys read the story? It isn’t just one person finding fault with the investigation, but 9. Nine seperate experts who were asked to review the case found the initial investigation into arson being severely lacking and that such a conclusion is unwarranted.

    Oh and all you brilliant pro-death penalty proponents here…the people who hired this latest expert: the Texas Forensics Science Commission. Whooops.

    Here is the relevant graph,

    Over the past five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation’s top fire scientists — first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project, and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson.

    I’ve bolded the part indicating that this latest review of the initial investigation was done at the request of the TFSC.

    This is the point where you guys admit you were wrong about who requested the study.

  18. William d'Inger says:

    I am sorry if my comments annoy you, Mr. Verdon, but it’s like this. I served in the military shortly after the Korean War. My unit was assigned a forward area mission with a high risk of capture and no backup. Consequently, we were prepped with classes on the brain-washing techniques used by the communists in those days.

    Mr Knapp’s presentation here is virtually a textbook case for brain-washing. That, in itself, is OK by me. This is a blog where people are expected to push their opinions, right or wrong. I support that idea wholeheartedly.

    My problem is with things like people harping on the fact that NINE experts came to the same conclusion while not mentioning the total number of experts consulted. You see, it would make a big difference whether it were nine of nine or nine out of 20. Furthermore, there is no mention whether the experts acted independently or as a cabal. Nowhere is it mentioned whether or not they are the same experts who normally are consulted in anti-death penalty cases. In that context, NINE is meaningless, and I expect any logical person to see through that.

    I have never said Texas did not execute an innocent person. I maintain an open mind on the subject. All I have said is that the evidence presented herein is totally inadequate to jump to the conclusion stated in the headline.

  19. Without trying to cross the streams of all the other pissing contests going on here, all I noted was that the word “if” still needs to be used in any sentence regarding innocence and tragedy in this case, no matter how many experts speak up now. The perfact remains the enemy of the good.

  20. Steve Verdon says:

    William,

    That is a great way to rationalize your position. Make sh*t up. Good going man.

    And I’ll note you didn’t man up and admit you were wrong in who requested this most recent review of the initial investigation.

    Mr Knapp’s presentation here is virtually a textbook case for brain-washing.

    1. I’d love to see you break this down.
    2. At least he isn’t positting kooky kornspiracies.

    Oh and William, one niggling little detail….

    The last review was at the request of the Texas Forensics Science Commission…the agency that did the original investigation. Are you asserting that this commission is comprised of anti-death penalty propagandists?

    Charles,

    Without trying to cross the streams of all the other pissing contests going on here, all I noted was that the word “if” still needs to be used in any sentence regarding innocence and tragedy in this case, no matter how many experts speak up now. The perfact remains the enemy of the good.

    “If” suggests that there is a non-zero probability that the person did not committ the crime he is being executed for. Given this, with enough executions you will eventually have state sanctioned murder.

    Now, I’ll repeat again, can any of the pro-death penalty people here who have questioned the source of the latest review actually exhibit a shred of intellectual honesty and admit that it was for the Texas Forensics Science Commission and not anti-death penalty zealots?

  21. Steve Verdon says:

    It should also be pointed out that Beyler reviewed two cases, one a capital punishment case the other not. This idea that the review is some sort of anti-death penalty propaganda is further weakened by this fact. Coupled with the fact that the review was requested by the Texas Forensics Science Commission the claim of anti-death penalty propaganda is simply unbelievable.

  22. William d'Inger says:

    Make sh*t up.

    Mr. Verdon (may I call you Steve?), if you are implying I made up the military brain-washing classes for a risky mission, you are mistaken. I doubt there would be any additional value in providing details, but it’s the truth.

    I’d love to see you break this down.

    1. Begin with a statement that would inflame the passions of any right-thinking person, e.g., Texas executed an innocent man. Never mind whether it’s the truth or not. Just state it as fact.
    2. Back up the statement with details that may (or may not) have any validity, for example, nine of 10 dentists surveyed recommend X-Brand. Let the reader/listener infer near unanimity of outcome (because that’ll make the listener presume (s)he has freedom of thought in the matter).
    3. In the face of skepticism:
    3.a Display righteous indignation.
    3.b Castigate the listener as being too lazy to pay attention and/or to intellectually dim-witted to understand.
    4. Throw out additional details which are of equally dubious validity, such as, the review requested by the Texas Commission (without stating who instigated the review), preferably in shrill tones or bold face type
    5. Demand the skeptic admit being wrong, devious, intellectually dishonest and/or uncooperative.

    Geezus, man, you must have a post-graduate degree in propaganda. Either that or you’re a natural born talent.

    For the record, I believe it’s a good thing to review this case. Learning from and correcting mistakes is how society progresses. If it takes zealots to nudge society off the status quo, so be it. But please do me a favor (two favors actually). Don’t call me a liar, and don’t expect me to turn off my logic circuits just because you’re passionate about some issue.

  23. Steve Verdon says:

    Mr. Verdon (may I call you Steve?), if you are implying I made up the military brain-washing classes for a risky mission, you are mistaken. I doubt there would be any additional value in providing details, but it’s the truth.

    Please, that was not what I was referring too, I was referring to your speculation on the total number of experts who reviewed the case (you guessed a number as high as 20), that there was possibly a cabal of researchers, and that anti-death penalty groups resort too. This is especially true when it is the Texas Forensics Science Commission that requested the last reveiw.

    1. Begin with a statement that would inflame the passions of any right-thinking person, e.g., Texas executed an innocent man. Never mind whether it’s the truth or not. Just state it as fact.

    Well, considering that there is sufficient reason so suspect the initial claim of arson as not being true, then the cause for claiming murder is not there. Legally it would seem that Willingham is thereby innocent. We have this notion in this country: innocent until proven guilty. Its a legal construct, but the intent is to make sure the truly innocent are not punished by mistake. The corollary is that sometimes the guilty will go free. In this sense of the word, Alex’s title is not at all that far off the mark.

    2. Back up the statement with details that may (or may not) have any validity, for example, nine of 10 dentists surveyed recommend X-Brand. Let the reader/listener infer near unanimity of outcome (because that’ll make the listener presume (s)he has freedom of thought in the matter).

    I fail to see how this would take away one’s freedom of thought or reasoning faculties. Unless of course the information is not true, and even then I still don’t see how it removes one’s ability to think or reason. It makes it harder to arrive at the correct answer, but that’s it.

    3. In the face of skepticism:
    3.a Display righteous indignation.

    Actually it isn’t your skepticism per se, but that your skepticism is based on a distinct lack of information that is obtainable by reading the entire article and noting various facts. In short, your statements were in error which suggested you read the first few paragraphs and made up your mind.

    3.b Castigate the listener as being too lazy to pay attention and/or to intellectually dim-witted to understand.

    But either you didn’t read the article or you missed the part where the review was commissioned by the TFSC.

    4. Throw out additional details which are of equally dubious validity, such as, the review requested by the Texas Commission (without stating who instigated the review), preferably in shrill tones or bold face type

    It isn’t a “dubious detail” it is a fact. As for your implication it looks like the entire commission as well as the several key actors in the Texas criminal/justice system were invovled in the process. Meeting minutes where the commission dealt with the Willingham case are available on the web.

    5. Demand the skeptic admit being wrong, devious, intellectually dishonest and/or uncooperative.

    As I’ve noted several times, you’ve tried to impugn the validity of the report by questioning “who paid for it”. A report that is critical of the Texas Forensics Science Commission. I’ve pointed out that it was the Texas Forensics Science Commission that paid for the report and you retreat to nebulous and dubious statements wondering who requested the review. Now I’m telling you it was not only all of the Commissioners, but also includes people like Assistant Attorney General Leigh Tomlin. What is going to be your next claim? That they are all closet anti-death penalty activists?

    Geezus, man, you must have a post-graduate degree in propaganda. Either that or you’re a natural born talent.

    Lets walk through it.

    August 27, 2009 | 11:51 am – William d’Inger writes:
    I am naturally suspicious when experts come to the conclusions sought by the people who employ them.

    August 27, 2009 | 01:11 pm – Steve Verdon writes:
    Oh and all you brilliant pro-death penalty proponents here…the people who hired this latest expert: the Texas Forensics Science Commission.

    August 27, 2009 | 06:14 pm – William d’Inger writes:
    4. Throw out additional details which are of equally dubious validity, such as, the review requested by the Texas Commission (without stating who instigated the review), preferably in shrill tones or bold face type

    In other words, when confronted by compelling evidence that would require you to admit error you retreat to, “Ahhh yes, but who was it that ordered the review???” You are suggesting yet another level to the conspiracy here. That not only in Craig Beyler in league with anti-death penalty types, but also that they have a secret mole inside the Texas Forensics Science Commission. What’s next that this mole is responsible for shoddy forensics work so as to further the cause of the anti-death penalty zealots?

    Now compare this to my position:

    The government, when it comes to the death penalty, will be like it is in many other endeavors: incompetent, bungling and/or lazy. Thus, the state really shouldn’t be entrusted with faithfully pursuing justice that includes the death penalty.

    I suggest no hidden conspiracies. I suggest not secret motives. I suggest nothing other than the general boneheadedness that we often observe with the government. It doesn’t even have to be that the government is boneheaded all the time, but that it is boneheaded just once and executes an innocent man is sufficient. I’m not suggesting we turn everyone condemned to death lose. All I’m saying is what most people already accept–the government is often noted for making colossally dumb moves on occassion.

    Which do you think is more reasonable? The theory that relies on clandestine conspiracies for which we have zero evidence, or the one in which government makes a hash of things at times and we shouldn’t trust them with the death penalty?

    Don’t call me a liar, and don’t expect me to turn off my logic circuits just because you’re passionate about some issue.

    Your logic circuits aren’t on I’m afraid, and you still haven’t admitted you were wrong about who paid for the review in question.

    And here is another article on the Willingham case.

    “He appears to be one of the pre-eminent people in the fire and arson investigation field,” Samuel Bassett, an Austin attorney and commission member, said of Beyler.

  24. William d'Inger says:

    Steve,

    First allow me to thank you for taking the time to generate such a thorough and insightful reply. You present a strong case for your position, and I will consider all your points in detail as time permits.

    My hope in all this is that Texas (and every other state) will review all such cases as a matter of policy (and preferably before execution). I have my doubts, of course.

    It is not about conspiracy theories. It’s about a lack of information. It makes a real difference who instigated the Texas Commission review. If it was thoughtful commissioners, that’s one thing. If, however, it was some administrator, legislator or judge with an agenda to push or an axe to grind, that’s a whole different scenario. Just saying the Commission ordered the review does not logically imply impartiality, and I reserve the right to withhold my opinion until I know the facts.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    …and I reserve the right to withhold my opinion until I know the facts.

    A pity that the appropriate authorities in the state of Texas didn’t withhold the state-sanctioned murder of Cameron Todd Willingham until they knew all the facts…

  26. William d'Inger says:

    Scheduled commitments precluded my pursuing this matter any further last evening. This morning it’s too far down the page to warrant further effort. As they say, it’s no use flogging a dead horse.

    I concede defeat. Steve clearly won the debate on a preponderance of the evidence. His presentation was superior to mine overall.

    Eating humble pie is a bitter experience, but fair is fair. My only consolation is that the discourse was conducted with less rancor than is sometimes the case on OTB.

  27. G.A.Phillips says:

    I for one am changing my stand on the death Panel, er.. death penalty to against, in light of recent events.

  28. Steve Verdon says:

    William,

    Eating humble pie is a bitter experience, but fair is fair.

    No kidding, I hate it too, but sometimes we have too.

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