Q: You think that Todd Willingham poured accelerant in the shape of a pentagram, some kind of devil worship thing?
A: I think that’s very possible and I think it’s very likely.
Judge John Jackson being interviewed on Nightline
Could it be… SATAN???
One of the things I find most disconcerting about the Willingham case is how little anyone knew — how little anyone cared to know — about him when he was on trial for his life (see my last post for an introduction to the case). Over and above the generic description — 22-year-old unemployed mechanic and father of three baby girls — it takes just a couple of sentences for David Grann to say just about all there was to say about Willingham’s recent life and times in Corsicana, TX: “Willingham, who was unfaithful, drank too much Jack Daniel’s, and sometimes hit Stacy—even when she was pregnant. A neighbor said that he once heard Willingham yell at her, ‘Get up, bitch, and I’ll hit you again.’”
Investigators interviewed several dozen people and were able to add one thing to his personality profile — he was a liar. Lying unfaithful wife-beaters are not a particularly rare breed, sad to say. Very very few of them murder their children. What set Willingham apart? Apparently it’s the fact that he murdered his children. It’s funny, though. The guy had been in town for a couple of years, neighbors heard what he was up to, but he never came to the attention of the police or child protective services — if he had it surely would have come out at the trial. I’ve looked through all the articles about Willingham in the Corsicana paper and found no soul-searching about the authorities’ utter failure to serve and protect those three little girls. Maybe the leap from drunken wife-beating to horrific infanticide is so routine in that part of Texas that it wasn’t worth a second thought. More likely, though, there was a run-of-the-mill ignorant rush to judgment. Folks who didn’t know and didn’t care how Willingham actually behaved with his children were absolutely convinced that he was a vicious, inhuman father. That I find stunning.
Early last September, Corsicana Daily Sun reporter Janet Jacobs canvassed many of the original investigators and prosecutors. Craig Beyler’s report for the Texas Forensic Science Commission had come out a few weeks earlier, and David Grann’s epic piece was in the current issue of the New Yorker. Despite the back-to-back beatings their work had just taken, the title of Jacobs’ article — “No Doubts” — perfectly captures the sentiment of the old-timers she spoke with. Their reactions are classic — non-stop defensiveness punctuated by ad hominem jabs at the busybody outsiders and their fancy liberal causes, with a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. A few points in Beyler’s report are raised and dismissed, but mostly the interviewees dwell contemptuously on the things they’ve always known. And there’s nothing they’re more certain of that what kind of person Willingham was — a “sociopath,” a “monster,” and according to one of the prosecutors, “one of the most evil people I’ve ever come in contact with in my life.” What rankles most isn’t the way their evidence and methods had been questioned, it’s what they see as an effort to make Willingham into a “poster boy” and a “martyr.” No decent person would want to know more about that creep than it took to get rid of him. It’s an attitude that served them well, and they’re stickin’ to it.
John Jackson is a bit of an exception. He was the lead prosecutor at Willingham’s trial, and went on to be a district court judge. He doesn’t have any doubts, either, but he did manage to respond to some of the substance of the criticism with equanimity. In an op-ed published in late August he acknowledges “the undeniably flawed forensic report” and then lists evidence that’s independent of that report and still, in his opinion, supports the guilty verdict. None of his points are very good and some are truly awful, but at least he wasn’t dismissing Beyler as just another expert who’ll say anything for a fee or slamming the Innocence Project as an “absolute farce.”
A few weeks later, Jackson was interviewed for a Nightline piece about the Willingham case. His tone is still moderate but his claims are a good bit wilder — there’s nothing like TV to get people to take leave of their senses, I guess. The bombshell is his belief that Willingham was “obsessed with Satan-like figures and that sort of thing” and even burned a pentagram into the floor of his childrens’ bedroom. Jackson isn’t exactly stating a personal opinion, he’s just pointing out “one factor that a finder of fact could consider,” presumably while keeping in mind other factors like Willingham’s Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin posters and the scary tattoo on his arm. (I bet the shape burned in the floor has nothing to do with accelerant or devil worship. I have my own theory — I think it reflects the availability of oxygen after flashover, when the fire was at its peak and air was coming through the windows and the front door. Of course I’m no fire expert, but I’ll put my theory up against Jackson’s any day. [Especially since Gerald Hurst agrees].)
Jackson is, if anything, more dependent than his colleagues on a broad reading of Willingham’s personality, or else he’s just more open about it. Nothing comes across more clearly in the Nightline interview than his absolute certainty that he knows what made Willingham tick. Early in the piece, Terry Moran asks him if the flawed forensics gives him “pause at all about sending a man to death?” “Not a man like Todd” is the answer. Jackson doesn’t explain how he got to know Todd so well during the short, antagonistic ritual they went through together. I can see how it would suit a prosecutor to believe that the defendant’s personality is perfectly captured by the crime — it’d be a useful but obnoxious kind of ignorance.
What Jackson and the rest of the crew are sure of, really, is that Willingham was exactly the kind of person who would commit the crime he was convicted of. That may be how they think about any of the riff-raff they investigate or prosecute. In a case that offered no compelling motive, though, it was a definitive assumption. It supports an airtight line of reasoning: The fire inspectors know he set the fire so he must have been the kind of person who would set the fire, so let’s go out and find some things to confirm that he’s the kind of person who would and probably did set the fire, and of course once that’s proven then it’s obvious he’s a sociopath, which makes him just the kind of person who would set a fire to kill his children, so… If it’s charged up with enough self-righteousness and nobody challenges the premise, you have a bulletproof case. It seems like something the defense would want to challenge, but in this case there’s no indication that they did. In fact, David Martin, one of the court-appointed defense attorneys at Willingham’s trial, has emerged as one of the most enthusiastic apologists for his former client’s execution. In “No Doubts” he gets the last word, and he boils the core assumption about Willingham down to its essence: character equals motive.
As for motive, Martin agreed with investigators about Willingham’s character.
“He had no conscience,” Martin said. “Why do monsters kill? They like killing.”
Martin has to be taken with a Texas-sized grain of salt, but there’s no sign that the prosecution was any more subtle. Other motives were floated before and during the trial. At first the authorities told reporters about a small life insurance policy, but it turned out Willingham wasn’t a beneficiary. The jailhouse snitch testified in court that Willingham was trying to cover up the effects of violent child abuse. The autopsies didn’t turn up any signs of abuse, though. One of the strikes against Willingham is that, as someone says in “No Doubts,” “none of the stories he told us panned out.” None of the State’s stories about motive panned out, either, but the unfounded speculation and blatant fabrication had no discernible effect on the prosecution’s credibility — an appeals court even cited some of their nonsense as legitimate evidence.
Jackson has a placeholder motive for interviews — “the children inhibited [Willingham’s] lifestyle.” When Willingham was arrested, county attorney general Pat Batchelor had the same general idea but he was more specific. He told reporters that “[t]he children were interfering with [Willingham’s] beer drinking and dart throwing.” No doubt the comment sent a useful message to voters and jurors about what a creep he’d just hauled in. But there are no anecdotes about Willingham ditching his children to drink and play darts. To suggest that he did anything that normal might have undermined the prosecution’s portrait of the defendant, which owed absolutely nothing to his everyday life. The case against Willingham proposes that you can find out all you need to know about him and his children from a few extreme incidents when he wasn’t actually with them. Whether he loved them, played with them, beat them, or neglected them is irrelevant.
In practice, it’s Willingham’s supposed indifference during the fire that seems to define him is a father who wanted his children to die. For Jackson, though, there’s another crucial piece of evidence. In his op-ed he claims that “[Willingham] had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages” (the ruling on Willingham’s direct appeal mentions only “one time he beat his pregnant wife in an effort to cause a miscarriage,” so if police heard about another incident it apparently wasn’t presented during the trial). On Nightline, Jackson calls this “the best evidence that I believe I presented” — better, even, than the forensic evidence of arson. He also describes it as “the prior attempts of Todd Willingham to kill his children,” which in my opinion is a stretch. But according to the usual pro-life logic I guess attempting to force a miscarriage would be the same as trying to kill a child (and what better place for “pro-life” logic than arguing for an execution?).
It’s even more repulsive to beat a woman when she’s pregnant than when she isn’t, and I don’t see any reason to doubt that Willingham did both. Did the behavior intensify or change when she was pregnant? If not, he was probably hitting her for the same stupid reasons either way. And if the way he treated his pregnant wife suggests deep antagonism and violent intentions towards the children, how did it manifest when he was confronted with living, breathing children? We don’t know and I guess we’re not supposed to care. It could be that he sat on the feelings for a couple of years and woke up one morning with the uncontrollable urge to get rid of the kids once and for all. When a man is on trial for his life, though, proof beyond a reasonable doubt should come with a more plausible explanation. Might as well claim the devil made him do it (what’s that, Judge Jackson? You say maybe the devil did make him do it?).
There’s an excellent reason for Jackson to make a grand but empty claim and then move on — his evidence collapses under any kind of scrutiny. The raw material is the testimony of a woman described as a friend of Willingham’s wife Stacy, who claimed that Stacy said that Todd beat her while she was pregnant with the twins. It’s a second-hand account of one side of an angry fight between partners in an abusive relationship — classic material for self-righteous or malicious gossip because practically by definition it’s one-sided and fueled by outrage. I don’t understand why it wasn’t dismissed as hearsay (read the details first if you think you can explain). Stacy denied the story, anyway. Her line both in and out of court has been that her husband wasn’t violent or neglectful towards the children.
It seems that the prior attempts didn’t impress the jury — it’s not something they mention in interviews, anyway. To the judge who ruled on the direct appeal it was just an incidental point, too. I’d like to think they saw through the pretense, but it seems more likely that they preferred to focus narrowly on the fire and its aftermath — after all, things are so clear cut that way. It’s also possible that Jackson’s blockbuster evidence wasn’t even presented during the guilt phase of the trial. I can’t tell for sure when Stacy’s friend testified, but there’s no doubt that Stacy herself didn’t take the stand until the punishment phase — according to the daily newspaper write-up she was the first witness in that phase. There’s a fairly detailed account of her testimony, which included a rebuttal of her friend’s claims (if claim and rebuttal are split between the two phases of the trial, doesn’t that complicate the issue of hearsay?).
Anyway, this is a borderline example of a problem that defenders of the verdict get into when they try to bulk up their meager case. In “No Doubts,” Jacobs has Alan Bristol rattling off a litany of reasons that Willingham “would have been convicted whether we had the arson evidence or not.” Bristol assisted in Willingham’s prosecution, and for the most part his list of prime evidence is a quick rehash of Jackson’s op-ed. The problem is that a lot of it couldn’t be used in court to prove Willingham’s guilt.
“The guy was a sociopath,” he said. Willingham refused a polygraph, tortured and killed animals as a child, abused his wife repeatedly, thought more about losing his car than his children, and clearly lied about what happened in the deadly fire, Bristol said.
“None of the stories he told us panned out,” Bristol said. “He tried to make himself out to be a big hero, that he tried to go in and save the children, but there was no smoke in his lungs and he had only minor injuries.”
Some of these things were key points in the punishment phase of Willingham’s trial, when the question wasn’t whether or not Willingham was guilty of a crime but whether or not he could be executed. As I understand it, the crux of the prosecutor’s case was that Willingham’s was a “sociopath.” That was the diagnosis of their questionable psychiatric expert, James Grigson (“Dr. Death”). Willingham’s supposed animal abuse was a bullet point supporting Grigson’s foregone conclusion. I can see how spousal abuse would be a sentencing factor but I don’t see how it would be relevant to guilt since the spouse wasn’t the victim of the crime. Perhaps the incidents during pregnancy are a special case — I don’t have the expertise to say. Refusing a polygraph is not useful evidence of anything — the point just makes Jackson and Bristol look desperate.
The lack of injuries and smoke inhalation might carry some weight if there was some expertise behind the observations. Beyler explains in his report why Willingham’s injuries were “entirely consistent with being exposed to a room fire environment” and the prosecutors counter with exactly nothing. I’m sure there’s some useful suggestion of guilt in Willingham’s lies and inconsistencies, but Brisol milks the point for suspicion and contempt instead of evidence. Manuel Vasquez certainly painted Willingham as a wild fabricator, but that goes in the category of flawed forensics.
There’s one thing left and it gets the full endorsement of both the jurors and the appeals court. A reporter noted that the way Willingham moved his car “chilled jurors, who inferred Willingham showed more concern for his car than his kids.” The car was a vivid detail that reinforced the general opinion that if Willingham really cared about his children he would have tried harder to rescue them — one juror was “moved” by the image of Willingham standing just outside the girls’ bedroom, where “[h]e didn’t do anything.” I’m unmoved, but I can see why the jury would be so receptive. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News a juror noted that the defense “never suggested that the fire could have started accidentally.” Willingham was the only person who could plausibly have set it. If they followed their instructions and stuck to the evidence presented in court, jurors had no choice but to hold him responsible for the fire and also for the deaths it caused. I imagine it was easier to dole out the verdict and all its consequences if it seemed clear that he acted guilty. Even easier, I suppose, if he acted like a monster.
The experts who looked at the case for the Chicago Tribune “didn’t put any stock in the claims that Willingham’s behavior was damning.”
Prosecutors… often rely on such circumstantial evidence, especially when children die in a fire and a parent survives. “When you are building a case of arson on the attitude of the survivor, that’s when things can go really wrong, particularly if the victims are children,” said [John] DeHaan, a consultant based in California who testifies for both prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Maybe there’s a primal compulsion to judge the parent in a situation like this. Grann describes how the eyewitness accounts of Willingham’s fire changed once it became clear that Willingham was suspected of setting it and then touches on research that has revealed how subjective our recollection of events can be. Even the way we remember the basic facts — how fast, how long, how hot — may change to suit the overall narrative. But there’s nothing subtle or buried about the subjectivity of the eyewitness testimony at Willingham’s trial — the behavior that seemed so damning to jurors is wide open to interpretation. It wouldn’t have been hard to shrug off Willingham’s failure to reenter the house if the inspectors had found evidence of a massive electrical short and immediately pronounced the fire accidental. People might have gossiped about how cold-hearted or cowardly he was, but I doubt they would have concluded that he was an infanticidal monster.
Even if the cause of the fire wasn’t obvious, observers could easily have settled on a different story. In Willingham’s case the key eyewitnesses were a woman and her 11-year-old daughter. They were sure that he could have gone back into the house if he’d wanted to, but they were never as close to the fire as he was and I doubt they had a lot of experience with burning houses. They had plenty of leeway to imagine conditions in the house to be more or less severe. If they thought the man on the porch was brave and loved his kids, they could have settled on a very different story. You couldn’t see any fire, just smoke, but man was it hot! You could tell he was trying to work up the nerve, even with nothing on his feet. And then the windows blew out and you should’ve seen him pushing that car out of the way before it went up, too!
The dubious conclusions about Willingham’s behavior during the fire are compounded by some really foolish and foul presumptions about his behavior afterwards. A firefighter encountered Willingham going through the house a day or so after the fire and thought the way he complained about his ruined dart board was unseemly. Neighbors reported that on the day after the fire Willingham and his wife were “going through the debris while playing music and laughing.” Those folks ought to get the prize for Most Community Spirit During a Witch Trial — it’s a wonder they didn’t hear the monster asking where the hell the crispy little bodies were because he was starving. The judge who ruled on Willingham’s direct appeal cited these two points and the moving of the car as proof that “appellant neither showed remorse for his actions nor grieved the loss of his three children.” For anyone, let alone a high court judge, to gauge a man’s grief and remorse from such poisonous narrow-minded witch-trial claptrap is sickening. Jackson used his op-ed to add some more malignant gossip to the mix. It’s no surprise that he finds comfort in Judge White’s ruling on the direct appeal — the two men are birds of a feather.
Poor Janet Jacobs. Late in October she wrote a column reflecting on the weird and unpleasant couple of months she’d spent covering the Willingham beat for the Corsicana Daily Sun. She’d been just minding her business, writing local coverage for a local paper, and then she was being attacked by “the fellers at the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and any number of Web sites.” If her high-falutin’ critics thought her reporting was biased, they were mistaken — it wasn’t her, it was the folks she was talking to. “The people we cover may have a bias, but it’s a legitimate one — just as legitimate as the one held by folks in New York, Chicago, Austin and Dallas.” In fact, she was so respectful of the bias of the people she interviewed for “No Doubts” that she might as well have been their press agent. She spins their mindless suspicion and contempt as common-sense skepticism, stokes it up with some good old middle-American resentment and insecurity, and throws it right back in them big-city fellers’ faces.
It’s surreal to me that so many people have gotten on this bandwagon without anything more substantial than someone’s opinion one way or another. They haven’t even tried to give the investigators the same benefit of the doubt that they gave Willingham and his supporters.
After reading the third or fourth of Willingham’s conflicting stories, I was starting to go “Whoa, who is he kidding?” But I’m a skeptic, and the rest of the media, including all those self-important, head-swollen, horse-hineys at larger papers and magazines who have forgotten what objectivity means, should be skeptical, too.
I’m struck by the idea of giving investigators the benefit of the doubt. Aren’t they supposed to produce a convincing body of evidence that speaks for itself? Jacobs is onto something, though. The case against Willingham demands the benefit of the doubt at every turn (I can’t sort out how much of the credit for that goes to the investigators and how much goes to the prosecutors, so I’ll have to lump them together). The fire inspectors were sure that Willingham doused his floors with lighter fluid in a path running down the hallway to the front door and set it alight. The prime eyewitnesses were sure that there wasn’t a flame in sight when Willingham was standing on the porch putting on a show of not rescuing his babies. Beyler flags this conflict and even claims that “The eyewitness observations are sufficient to cause the failure of FM Vasquez’s hypothesis about the fire.” Nobody close to the investigation has seen fit to respond. But give them the benefit of the doubt if you want — they haven’t answered any of the hard questions raised by their critics, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t if they really wanted to.
And maybe it’s a moot point, anyway. The prosecutor has assured us that just because Willingham was charged with the murder of children who were killed by fire, there’s no reason to get all wrapped up in the arson evidence. After all, we’ve got the shocking revelations of the wife’s friend, so we know this guy wanted to kill his children before they were even born. The National Enquirer wouldn’t turn up its nose at that kind of evidence, so who are we to doubt? And it was obvious that he didn’t want to save his kids, either. Any 11-year-old could see that. Oh right, one of the best witnesses was an 11-year-old! We better give her the benefit of the doubt, too.
That’s the strong evidence. The other stuff — the padding — demands even more indulgence. Animal abuse, we’re told, is a key indicator of sociopathy. Lo and behold, it turns out Willingham was an animal abuser. We know because some guy said that once upon a time, Willingham told him a story about brutally killing a dog. Willingham might have been a bad guy, but at least he wasn’t a liar, right? And don’t forget that the neighbors heard him desecrating the scene of the disaster with loud music and laughter. An innocent person would surely have been doing something more… appropriate and ummmm… innocent, right?
I’d have to have an awful lot of faith in someone to accept so many dubious points. Nothing I’ve read about the people who constructed the case against Willingham inspires any confidence. It was the lead fire investigator, Manuel Vasquez, who laid the foundation of the case both in and out of court. He was apparently full of confidence and a very compelling witness but in practice it seems that he was unclear about the difference between a house fire and a campfire (i.e., the effects of ventilation and radiation in an enclosed space), and by his own testimony he had declared virtually every fire he investigated an arson. The one thing to be said for the rest of the crew is that they weren’t as delusional, but there’s no sign they were more careful or competent. The ones who spoke out about the recent controversy have made it clear they’re absolutely sure that Willingham was monster who committed a horrible crime. Did they ever ask a difficult question or risk finding an inconvenient answer? If so, there’s not a sign of it. So I’m afraid I’m made of doubt on this one — the benefit is long gone.
(Jacobs certainly practices what she preaches about giving the inspectors the benefit of the doubt. Of the people she interviewed, fire inspector Doug Fogg is the only one who responds to any specifics from Beyler’s report. He’d be more convincing if he didn’t remember significant “facts” that somehow never made it into any other account of the case, like the “four empty bottles of charcoal lighter [that] were found just outside the front door” (that’s in addition to the one or two bottles on the porch mentioned in other reports). She might have, first of all, flagged that claim as new and interesting information and then done some fact checking. And it seems to me she might have done all her interviewees a favor if she’d encouraged them to rant less and instead take a stab at some of the serious questions that had been raised about their conclusions. Of course that’s what Terry Moran did on Nightline, and it didn’t make Jackson look all that good.)
Jackson is the odd one in the crew. He seems more thoughtful and reasonable but he’s also come up with the most incredible stuff. The pentagram theory is so far out that it’s hard to know what to make of it. Towards the end of the Nightline segment, Moran asks about something with more obvious significance — Willingham’s emphatic refusal of a plea bargain offer that would have spared him from execution. Jackson explains this away as “a response to [Willingham’s] belief that a life sentence for him would be worse than a death penalty” — another astonishing insight that seems to have no rational basis.
Moran: Isn’t it also possible that he just was telling the truth when he said that “I will never plead guilty to something I didn’t do, especially killing my kids”?
Jackson: Uh, I don’t think it’s a very good possibility that Todd Willingham ever told the truth to anybody, about anything. He’s one of the most completely manipulative individuals that you’d ever hope to find. He’s still manipulating us from the grave!
If Willingham is a devil worshipper and he can mess with us from the grave, that sounds pretty sinister. And what was the quickest way for him to get in the ground and get to work on us? To be executed, of course! Would that be reading too much into Jackson’s comments? Maybe. He said just enough to make it both reasonable and irresistable to speculate but not enough to tell what he actually believes and why (to be fair, the interview was edited by Nightline and it’s possible that Jackson offered a better explanation but key details were cut out).
But as I pointed out last time, Jackson’s pentagram theory gives new significance to his closing arguments at the trial, when he referred to “Willingham’s inadvertent ‘confession,’ burned into the floor.” In the same speech, he assured the jury that “monsters do exist and one sits in this courtroom and its name is Cameron Todd Willingham.” Its name? Either Jackson is very fussy about his grammar or he’s inclined to think that Willingham was really non-human. It’s possible that Jackson is not just a run-of-the-mill overzealous narrow-minded prosecutor-turned-judge, he’s a superstitious nutjob, too.
While devil worship seems to be Jackson’s unique insight, everyone in the Corsicana crew knows that Willingham was a sociopath. I’m inclined to think that even in more thoughtful hands the term is pseudo-scientific. I don’t know what else to believe in this case, when the prosecution had to bring in a professional stooge to make the diagnosis in court. “Sociopath” is like a magic word that that makes any wild claim about Willingham seem perfectly reasonable. As usual, though, Jackson thinks a little deeper. Everyone knows that Willingham was a liar but Jackson is the only one, as far as I can tell, to use the word manipulative. A quick tour through the online literature (caveat lector, as always) makes it clear that it’s the nature of a sociopath to be a remorseless, manipulative liar.
If Willingham was so incredibly manipulative, though, all I have to say is that he was remarkably bad at it. Wouldn’t that be the perfect way for a really manipulative person (or thing) to throw everyone off his trail? But maybe even Jackson wouldn’t pursue his argument to such absurd extremes. Maybe in regular life Willingham was a charming remorseless liar who always got what he wanted. That would help explain why he was unemployed, broke, and living with his three infant daughters in run-down firetrap. But what does Jackson know or care about Willingham’s regular life? As far as I can tell, nothing. He’s happy to pose as an authority, though, and tell whatever ludicrous story suits his purposes.
Needless to say, because somehow these things always come steeped in hypocrisy, Judge Jackson is the who comes out looking manipulative. In what I’ve read about the case, in fact, there’s one really striking example of manipulative person at work. It’s the prosecutor thumping a fire-scarred bible, calling the defendant a monster — the kind we deny for the sake of our childrens’ piece of mind — and calling down on “its” head God’s terminal punishment for “whomsoever shall harm one of my children.” It’s an image that gives the full demagogic force to the mix of hyperbole and ignorance that had been fed to the jury up to that point. Jackson sent Willingham to death row with a case that could hardly be less substantial or more manipulative. Apparently that’s just a prosecutor doing his job.
I hate to embed video with a commercial but this episode of Church Chat is too good to resist. Al Franken and Phil Hartman are both fantastic — Franken as an extremely jovial Pat Robertson and Hartman an utterly despondent Jimmy Swaggart.