INNOCENCE: "Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?"

In a thorough and penetrating article published in The New Yorker on August 31, David Grann offers further evidence that Texas probably executed an innocent man in 2004. Grann carefully examines all the evidence that was used in the two-day trial in 1992 to convict Cameron Todd Willingham of murder by arson of his three young children.  It is now well established through a series of investigations by other fire experts that the forensic evidence of arson presented at trial had no scientific basis and should not have led to Willingham's conviction.  Another piece of evidence used at trial was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said that Willingham had confessed to the crime, despite the fact that he had always maintained his innocence and even refused a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty.  The informer eventually received early release, tried to recant his testimony, and is now no longer sure what he heard.  He also suffers from mental disorders.  Willingham's lawyers thought he was 100% guilty and offered no rebuttal expert to question the finding of arson.  At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution put on a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who made a living helping to send defendants to death row by testifying to their future dangerousness without even interviewing them.  Dr. Grigson said that Willingham was an "extremely severe sociopath," words similar to those he used to describe Randall Dale Adams, who was eventually exonerated following an investigation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, portrayed in the film "A Thin Blue Line."

The Innocence Project in New York, which has independently investigated the Willingham case, issued a press release in which its co-director, Barry Scheck, stated, “The New Yorker’s investigation lays out this case in its totality and leads to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham was innocent. There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed.  The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again.  As long as our system of justice makes mistakes – including the ultimate mistake – we cannot continue executing people." The Texas Forensic Science Commission has received a report from its science consultant echoing the conclusion from other experts that Willingham was convicted on the basis of unsound testimony.  They will issue a final report on evidence in the future.

(D. Grann, "Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?" The New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2009; Press Release, The Innocence Project, Aug. 31, 2009; photo: family photo of Willingham and daughter Amber from the Chicago Tribune, which also investigated the case).  See DPIC's latest podcast on Innocence. See also DPIC's Innocence pages and list of those exonerated from death row since 1973.