Saturday, October 03, 2009

Willingham

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker ran a riveting article about a Texas man executed under the death penalty: Trial By Fire. He was accused of burning down his house with his three young daughters inside.



He insisted that he was innocent. As the years went on, many of the prosecution's witnesses were discredited for being sensationalist, and working from urban myths instead of scientific fact. A leading arson expert wrote a scathing report a few months before the scheduled execution, insisting that there was no evidence for arson.

Regardless, the state of Texas refused to re-examined his case. He was killed by lethal injection.

Now, several years later, there is some investigation into whether he was wrongfully executed. Yesterday was a scheduled commission meeting, to hear evidence from arson experts. The evidence points toward an accidental fire.

Two days before the commission hearing, the Texas governor replaced three members of the commission and postponed the hearing indefinitely. He is up for re-election. It would look bad for him if the commission concludes that he refused the appeal of an innocent man on death row.

I don't understand why this isn't given more media coverage. An innocent man may have been executed. The governor seems to be using a shady maneuver to deny the hearing. Why is this getting a tiny blip of coverage compared to the Letterman scandal? It is literally a matter of life and death.

20 comments:

Jeremy said...

It's one reason why I oppose the death penalty. How can you really be sure that someone deserves to die? I guess if maybe the confess and they've done some heinous things, but it's not something you can undo.

girlrobot said...

I agree...I am totally against the death penalty for this reason as well. How many wrongful deaths must there be before it stops? The worst part is you know that guy is already feeling horrible that his THREE DAUGHTERS ARE DEAD..let alone people are blaming him for it. geez. So sad.

John K. Lin said...

I've found 309 articles via Google News on this... I think this case (but not the governor) was also covered on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago.

Governor Rick "Secession for Texas" Perry is a douchebag, just like former Governor/President George W. Bush.

Niniane said...

I don't understand your point about the 309 news articles. We all know there exists some media coverage. My statement is that the media coverage is small compared to coverage of other issues, such as Letterman.

Anonymous said...

There are injustices happening every single day. You can even ask the question, why are millions of babies being killed in the slums of India not getting more coverage than this guy in Texas that may or may not have killed his daughters?

Matthew said...

The Willingham execution is politically sensitive, it's not about sex, thinking about wrongful execution makes people uncomfortable, Willingham was not photogenic, and there's no celebrity involved. Are you really surprised there wasn't a lot of coverage?

Niniane said...

The most recent two comments make good points. Alas.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of a Steve Jobs quote. "When you're young, you look at television and think, There's a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that's not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That's a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It's the truth."

Anonymous said...

It's sad if he was innocent, but do you know how many innocent iraqi citizens we've killed? I read on some reports there have been more than a quarter million. You don't really hear about that side of the story at all.

hmf284 said...

The NYT - perhaps alone, has provided thorough coverage of the Willingham case & ran an editorial Aug. 31st "Questions About An Execution" - bit.ly/A0U5J. (It also ran two relevant editorials last week: "High Cost of Executions" bit.ly/fHnA7 & "Botched Executions" bit.ly/3tSmfs.) I recently read & highly recommend "Closed Chambers" by Edward Lazarus, a former clerk to Justice Blackmun (and now Chief-of-Staff at the FCC), which provides an inside look & retrospective of the Supreme Court, as it began its rightward drift. Though insightful, it was particularly troubling to read his account of death penalty cases. On a separate note, I also highly recommend from last week's New Yorker "Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair" - http://bit.ly/7xfyK.

M. Wint said...

this is sickening, a Guv'nor... putting aside a case like this so he can have a better chance at being re-elected, that stinks!... but I know it happens.

it's damn shame, really!

Anonymous said...

Niniane,

I am glad to see you posting on this and agree with you feelings.

Anonymous - regarding the Steve Jobs quote - it is true to some extent, however, the "media" is not really innocent. Read some Chomsky or read Glenn Greenwald- http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/

It is important that we hold the media to a higher standard or things will never get better......

Richardhg said...

The media can only report what happened. When it comes to the failure of the law to have feedback systems that would ensure that injustices get corrected, that is up to the politicians.

In the US, misconduct by Government is punished with a gentle rebuke, far from the consequences for the general public.

One of the great strengths of the US justice system is that it operates at city, county, state and federal level, every one being independent of the other.

The problem arises when there is denial of a fair trial under the law, or deliberate misconduct by the court or it's officers. Appeals to higher authorities, if such remedies even exist, are very labor intensive, and require the services of expertise that can easily cost $600 per hour.

And the consequences for perjury by Government prosecution witnesses, or misconduct by prosecutors or judges, is swept under the carpet rather than investigated and used to help ensure justice.

We are watching this work its way through in the current economic disaster, which is a litany of Government concealment and neglect, along with immoral corporate conduct that was not prohibited by law, only by the standards of fair play.

The failure of the US justice system is foundational to every level of Government, and the barrier to ensuring good behavior. The only way to fix this is to have review systems that allow federal intervention in the activities of the States where there is suspicion of injustice, and a proactive effort to ensure justice is done.

But this is probably not going to happen. Every day, we see more examples of injustice, particularly with the Internet now bringing news of such events.

And this is not restricted to the United States. Have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azaria_Chamberlain_disappearance where an Australian pastor and his wife were accused of murdering their child, and convicted based on a very malicious trial process, and you can see that it is a problem that all Western democracies face, and must change.

s said...

It is strange that commenters are bringing up the fact that greater injustices occur in the world as a reason to ignore this one. Do they think you're incapable of holding more than one outrage in your head at a time? This particular case should strike a nerve, because given such a systemic failure of justice, any one of us could suffer the same fate. Anyway, I think major props should go to the Innocence Project for their work on this and similar cases.

On a totally unrelated note, Judge Sharon Keller (also in Texas) denied a last-minute stay of Michael Richard's execution because "the clerk's office closes at 5pm."

xerxes_blue said...

There are other uses for the death penalty than merely executing monsters. For example, in most states if you receive the death penalty, you automatically receive a priority appeal and a thorough review of every part of the case. If you receive a life-in-prison sentence, you are placed on the slowest possible review path, if any, for state review. A truly innocent person may languish in prison for 50 years under a life without parole sentence vs a death penalty sentence...
Also, death penalty prisoners are separated from the general population whereas life without parole prisoners are not. Many of the most notorious killers in California learned their "skillset"--how to lure children, etc.--from the life without parol monsters who they were permitted to comingle with during their previous shorter stays in the system.You could argue that greater use of death penalty would keep monsters separated from aspiring monsters and ultimately result in overall fewer monsters over time...

pawel@pl said...

We here in europe got by no means no best and only lawsystem, however in such case, there would either be automatic procedure to start a counter-case against judge and/or others involved, or a "public vs. judge xxx and others" case would be allowed which would end with verdict of involuntarily causing death, plus possibly misconduct (wrong interpretation or omitting part of material of specialists) and power/position abuse.

And yet, one of two economies with + gdp growth out of europe, where I curr. reside, is possibly aimed to fall back under the rule of alikes of republican scumm, which might cause just another longish trip for a better life for me.

pawel@pl said...

Ahh, a quick update on this one, half page article in my countries biggest daily covering mainly this case and hopefully starting some debate about similar cases.

Anonymous said...

Come on Niniane Chomsky is a hater of everything American.

He complains when America intervenes and he complains when they do not
typical liberal…

Please don’t drink his kool-aid

hmf284 said...

David Carr has a compelling piece in today's NYT http://bit.ly/2DGGIo re efforts by the Cook Co. IL (which incl's Chicago) State's Atty to go after student journalists who uncovered evidence of a wrongful murder conviction & force Northwestern Univ. "to turn over investigative materials, e-mail messages, course outlines, syllabuses, training materials and, yes, even grades."

hmf284 said...

Just FYI: David Brooks, an NYT "conservative" editorial columnist, today gave out his "Sydney Awards" for best magazine essays of the year http://bit.ly/7oS27G & stated:

" The most powerful essay I read this year was David Grann’s “Trial by Fire” in The New Yorker. Grann investigated the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for murdering his three children by setting their house on fire.

In the first part of the essay, Grann lays out the evidence that led to Willingham’s conviction: the marks on the floor and walls that suggested that a fire accelerant had been splashed around; the distinct smoke patterns suggesting arson; the fact that Willingham was able to flee the house barefoot without burning his feet.

Then, in the rest of the essay, Grann raises grave doubts about that evidence. He tells the story of a few people who looked into the matter, found a miscarriage of justice and then had their arguments ignored as Willingham was put to death. Grann painstakingly describes how bogus science may have swayed the system to kill an innocent man, but at the core of the piece there are the complex relationships that grew up around a man convicted of burning his children. If you can still support the death penalty after reading this piece, you have stronger convictions than I do."