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Todd Willingham’s witch trial: the dreadful defense

The justice system is supposed to be able to cope with narrow-minded, overzealous authorities. That’s what the defense is for, and it doesn’t seem like Willingham’s defense has come in for its fair share of criticism. The problem is that there wasn’t much to it, so there’s not much to hang your criticism on. The fire inspectors produced page after page of old wives’ tales and other nonsense (answered years later by page after page of debunking), the prosecution added a healthy dose of rhetoric and innuendo, and the defense responded with… the babysitter.

Apparently Willingham’s defense was judged to be technically adequate during the appeals process. As I understand it, all that means is that no egregious errors were made. Willingham’s defense may have been error-free but it was still worthless.

Needless to say, when Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife were charged with arson they didn’t settle for a defense that was merely adequate. Their defense was to Willingham’s as a tank is to a BB gun. The charges against Medina were a bit of an ironic reversal, too — as Gov. Rick Perry’s general counsel he had a role in denying Willingham a last-minute stay of execution. Did he give a minute’s thought to the enormous difference between the defense the soon-to-be dead man got and the one he’d insist on for himself? I doubt it.

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Todd Willingham’s witch trial: the preposterous prosecution

Early last September, Corsicana Daily Sun reporter Janet Jacobs canvassed many of the original investigators and prosecutors in the Willingham case. 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.”

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.

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Todd Willingham’s witch trial: the ignorant investigation

Until his house burned down a few days before Christmas 1991, Todd Willingham lived with his wife and three young daughters in Corsicana, a small town in northeast Texas. He’d gone back to sleep, he claimed, after his wife left the house that morning. About an hour later a shout from the two-year-old woke him up. The house was full of smoke. He yelled for her to get out and made his way to the childrens’ bedroom but couldn’t locate the twins, who were about a year old. All three girls died.

In “Trial By Fire,” the masterful account of Willingham’s case that ran in the New Yorker last September, David Grann describes how injustice was piled on top of catastrophe. Fire inspectors quickly concluded that the blaze was arson and that Willingham’s story of waking up and getting out of the house was a fabrication. He had no compelling motive for either arson or murder but the authorities decided that he was nonetheless “a man without a conscience whose serial crimes had climaxed, almost inexorably, in murder.”

It was a witch trial that convicted Todd Willingham. The fire inspectors set the whole process in motion and gave it a veneer of rationality. Actually, though, they were priestly figures, and when they conjured up the crime and the defendant’s guilt, it was presented and accepted as a matter of faith. If there was ever a presumption of innocence, it went out the window soon after the inspectors walked into the burned-out house.

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When justice fails: Make sure to get the defense a rich person gets

Above: Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade SeligmannBelow: Cameron Todd Willingham In the year-old editorial I was writing about last time, Duke Law professor Jim Coleman argues that the aborted cases against the Duke lacrosse players and Alaska Senator Ted Stevens were not failures of the justice system. In those two instances, “some parts of […]

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Polanski without the polemic

Writing about the lacrosse case has meant mucking around in the warped, self-serving reasoning of the culture-war polemic. Writing a polemical analysis means leading your readers by the nose to the chosen answer, and it means never having to say you’re sorry for failing to live up to any of the standards that you self-righteously […]