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.