In the last week, it was discovered that a Texas man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed in 2004 for a crime he did not commit. He is the first, though not believed to be the only, person to be executed then proven innocent.
Leading to his execution, judges and the governor ignored scientific evidence showing that the fire which killed Willingham’s three daughters was accidental (1). And though Willingham has not been declared innocent by Texas, findings by a recent state-sanctioned review of the case exonerate him of any crime. (2).
Willingham maintained his innocence through 12 years of imprisonment, stating at his execution:
“I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do” (3).
Criminals routinely lay false claims of their innocence, but to read these words from a man who was honestly innocent and executed is a haunting reminder of the fallibility and finality of capital punishment.
Yet, an op-ed published in the Corsicana Daily Sun by Judge John Jackson, a prosecutor in Willingham’s case, asserts that Willingham’s guilt is not in doubt (4). Judge Jackson has seven points that he feels are overlooked by those asserting Willingham’s innocence; none is reason enough to convict someone of murdering three children.
Two points establish nothing other than Willingham was not an upstanding citizen and was, in fact, a bad person. Another two points address Willingham’s claims that he tried to rescue the children. Neighbors testified that Willingham did not attempt to save the kids and prosecutors believes he did not inhale smoke or get enough burns to have attempted a rescue. Research has shown that human memory and thus, eyewitness testimony is erroneous. However, even if eye-witness testimony is true, not saving children is different from murdering them. If it were a crime to not save someone from a fire then eyewitnesses would be subject to prosecution.
Judge Jackson’s final three points are that 1) Willingham rudely refused a polygraph that would “eliminate him as a suspect” (4); 2) Willingham made a “suspicious” statement to his older daughter at her funeral; and 3) a refrigerator blocked the back door which prevented anyone from leaving as the fire was at the front door.
The polygraph offered and refused is not a very good indicator of guilt. Had he taken the polygraph, the results should not have made a difference in his trial. Polygraphs are notoriously inaccurate and easy to beat. Many states have made them inadmissible in court due to their fallibility (5).
Willingham’s statement to his daughter was, according to witnesses, “You’re not the one who was supposed to die” (4). This is terrible if you take it so mean the other two girls should have died. However, were Willingham not a suspect, the statement would more likely have been taken as the words of a grieving father, not an admission of guilt.
Lastly, the statement about the refrigerator fails to mention when the refrigerator was pushed against the door. Maybe the family was just irresponsible in keeping doorways clear in the home. This is certainly not enough to claim Willingham wanted his family to die in a fire.
Judge Jackson goes on to write “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” (4)
Apparently, Willingham lacked manners. I probably would too if I was accused of killing my family. But it is absurd to think that refusing a guilty plea deserves an execution. Judge Jackson’s statement is insulting to both Willingham and the justice system. He is saying that Willingham was to be found guilty no matter what evidence there was to the contrary. Thus, he might as well take life in prison over death. This isn’t much of a choice. By pleading guilty, he would not get a trial, he would not get to appeal, he would never have the opportunity to prove his innocence.
Willingham was probably not a good guy. He made a lot of bad decisions in his lifetime. But that doesn’t matter because if the fire was an accident, there was no crime.
Wrongful executions can be prevented by abolishing the death penalty. While not preventing the conviction of the innocent, elimination of the death penalty will at least ensure that this nation does not kill innocent people. Other steps can help reduce the number of false convictions, including ensuring evidence is based on sound, proven scientific principles, juries should be made aware of the fallibility of the human memory, and prosecutors should not be rewarded based simply on their convictions. It is clear that, in this case, the government has murdered an innocent person. There are systemic ills in our justice system, and in Texas in particular, that need to be addressed to prevent this from happening again.
(1) Mills, S., & Possley, M. (December 9, 2004). Fire that killed his 3 children could have been accidental. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.truthinjustice.org/willingham.htm
(2) Mills, S., (August 24, 2009). Cameron Todd Willingham case: Expert says fire for which father was executed was not arson. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-tc-nw-texas-execute-0824-082aug25,0,5812073.story
(3) Innocence Project of Florida, Inc.. (August 25, 2009). Texas Executed an Innocent Man. Plain Error. Retrieved from http://floridainnocence.org/content/?p=1364
(4) Jackson, J. (August 29, 2009). JACKSON: Guest Commentary – Willingham guilt never in doubt. Corsicana Daily Sun. Retrieved from http://www.corsicanadailysun.com/opinion/local_story_241210447.html
(5) Vergano, D. (September 9, 2002). Telling the truth about lie detectors. USA TODAY. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002-09-09-lie_x.htm