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Checking in with… KC Johnson

Me: There is no reference to the behavior of the lacrosse players in the section you quoted.

KC: I am pleased to see that you are no longer denying that Matherly’s post referenced the lacrosse players’ behavior.

[Update below]

There’s the essence of my latest exchange with KC Johnson in the Durham-in-Wonderland comments — as you can see, the man hasn’t lost any of his ponderous, insincere charm. Not much has been going on there for quite a few months, but every now and then Johnson drops in with his rhetorical blunderbuss. The latest this past weekend was about the trial of Crystal Mangum, and near the end I found this:

In a recent post, [Steven Matherly] has taken a break from defending Mangum, and instead has launched into the character attacks on the lacrosse players that were so common from figures like Cathy Davidson and her Group of 88 comrades. Matherly made the mindboggling claim that the role of the lacrosse players in the lacrosse case is comparable to “the racist riots of the 1920s and 30s.”

At the other end of the link, there’s an earnest piece that’s framed as a plea for folks to stop hurling crude racist rhetoric at Mangum — “in your heart of hearts”, Matherly writes, “you know that it is wrong to attack her personally.” In the middle of the post he goes over America’s “long and sordid history of race relations” and concludes that if people had used “the N word” and carried out an actual lynching, the lacrosse case would have been just like “the racist riots of the 1920’s and 30’s” — “[e]verything else is the same.” By “everything” what he really means is everything that’s on his mind at the moment, and that’s really just one thing — the way Mangum has been treated.

There’s plenty to argue with in there — vagueness, narrow perspective, facile history — but there is no claim about “the role of the lacrosse players” and no explicit or veiled attack on their character. And it’s not that Johnson cooked up a questionable interpretation of an obtuse text. What he’s offering is a blatant misreading. It’s just plain wrong, and I couldn’t resist telling him so. I thought it would be fun to see if I’d get the usual discredit-the-messenger reaction even when there was so little at stake, not to mention a much smaller audience. The deeper question is whether, in Johnson’s book, someone like Matherly — an insignificant and wrong-headed but useful Wonderland character — deserves to be read accurately and criticized for claims he’s actually made.

Continue reading ›

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Hosting control issues, the company that’s hosted my domain for several years — probably as long as I’ve been writing this blog — seems to be disintegrating. It started getting flaky over the summer and I had a feeling it was time to switch hosts but foolishly didn’t act. Their servers went down early in the week. When they did, I noticed that hadn’t renewed my domain name registration like they were supposed to and it was about to expire. It’s not the world’s greatest domain name, but it’s mine, and I was afraid I was going to lose it.

In the middle of the week the servers came up long enough for me to back my stuff up. (Why didn’t I already have backups, you ask? Ummm….) They went back down within 24 hours and I suspect they’ll stay that way, although the company’s main page has been up through the whole thing, acting as if these people are really in business (needless to say, you should not under any circumstances do business with them). And I went to the registrar they were reselling for (eNom) and got my domain back. Naturally I wasn’t the only person on the sinking ship, and in fact I was pretty lucky — there’s a thread on WebHosting Talk with more details. Hopefully bluehost will be better.

What I learned is how vulnerable you are to the negligence or misconduct of the people who register your domain name. For me, if I lost this one, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. If I depended on it for a livelihood, it could be disastrous. I predict a lot of frustration and heartache in the near future, as people transfer more and more of their identity online. Heaven forbid that we kill the miracle of the free market with any effective regulation or oversight that would keep it from taking us for a ride.

When I checked my site this morning, after the registration expired, I got the surprisingly cheerful, pretty face of bladder control problems. I love the logic of the first few lines.

A near…?
A full…?
Of course, a bladderfull!

I guess that’s the logic of a search engine — people apparently don’t search for an “ear full” or a “full house” or a “full monty,” they search for the solution to a full but leaky bladder, or something like that.

The fishbowl effect and the highfalutin’ fool who flirted with it

[I wrote most of this a year and a half ago, I guess, and it was out of date then. But what the hell, everything else I post is untimely. Maybe I can give Peter Millican’s page an infinitesimal bump on google for the next time this particular wingnut delusion rotates back into favor.]

One of the most entertaining little sideshows to the ‘08 election was the one about Bill Ayers writing Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father. All the shouting about how Barack Hussein is really a Muslim was (and is) revolting and stupid and the birth certificate business was (and is) unimaginably tedious, and of course stupid as well. At least with Ayers and Obama there’s a real story. Plus I lived in Hyde Park in the early 90s and I like to imagine that I was just a few blocks away while past terrorist and future president were busy palling around.

Jack Cashill is the man behind the theory. In the last few weeks of the campaign he produced a steady stream of articles about it for (there’s a handy list on his website — it seems to be growing, too). Each one is written in perky little paragraphs, many of them nearly identical to the perky little paragraphs in an earlier post, but there’s usually something new, too. Cashill is quite the salesman — his pitch has the mesmerizing feel of an infomercial, and almost as much depth.

As he reaches out to the media and to experts who might help build his case, the literary quest — a diligent search for Ayers’ fingerprints in Obama’s book — becomes a story within a story. There’s a turning point on Oct. 23 and you, dear reader, are practically a co-conspirator. Cashill “despaired of breaking this story beyond the Internet and talk radio” but then “a seriously can-do congressman intervened,” and suddenly “we are running sophisticated data-driven tests at two separate sites.” Maybe there’s a real chance to “somehow penetrate the battlements the mainstream media have built around Obama.”

Cashill returns time and again to his correspondence with Patrick Juola, an expert in literary forensics. What he learned from Juola was that no “data-driven computer analysis” would give him a definitive result, and so his best hope was to persevere with the “good old-fashioned literary detective work.” There is, as Scott Eric Kaufman points out, a rich tradition there — thanks to just that sort of sleuthing we know that “the plays of William Shakespeare were written by Roger Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, or Edward de Vere.” Continue reading ›

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Todd Willingham’s witch trial: the dreadful defense

David Martin on CNN
Judge Jackson's pentagram

Top, David Martin on CNN. “Anderson, excuse my informal attire. We’ve been out checking cows. … And tell me your question again?” Below, Willingham’s house after the fire (source). Pour lighter fluid on carpet, set it on fire, and it looks just like this picture.

…this is absurd, I wouldn’t hire a guy like this.


David Martin dismissing a scientist and the report he wrote because of the way it attacks the expert testimony that sent Martin’s client Todd Willingham to death row.

To me, he was not repentant. He had this attitude and air about him that he was wrongfully charged.


Rob Dunn, Willingham’s other attorney, on why his client was advised not to testify in his own defense.

OK, one more on the Willingham case — go back to the first post for an introduction to the case and disclaimer about how little I really know. The plot so far: Almost a year ago (!) I read David Grann’s fascinating article in the New Yorker. “Junk science” is the main subplot in the article and the main reason that the case has become so controversial, but it’s not the only thing that sent Willingham to death row, perhaps not even the main thing. What I’ve found going over the investigation and then the prosecution is that it took a lot of malicious ignorance to turn the faulty forensics into a witch trial.

The justice system is supposed to be able to cope with narrow-minded, overzealous authorities, though. 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 — I’ll do my best to explain why in a bit. First, I want to take a quick look at another case. In an editorial I’ve brought up before, Duke law professor Jim Coleman suggests that there are effectively two justice systems in the US. If so, I think the high-functioning, principled one is epitomized by the arson case against Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife, just like the Willingham case epitomizes the low-functioning, hypocritical one. Needless to say, Medina didn’t settle for a defense that was merely adequate. His is to Willingham’s as a tank is to a BB gun. The charges against Medina were a bit of an ironic reversal — 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

Judge Jackson on Nightline
Judge Jackson's pentagram

Judge John Jackson and the pentagram he found on Todd Willingham’s floor. Satan or just ventilation?

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. Continue reading ›

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Todd Willingham’s witch trial: the ignorant investigation

Cameron Todd Willingham with his daughter Amber

Cameron Todd Willingham with his daughter Amber, manipulating us from the grave.

I could handle being here for something I did, but to be persecuted like this for nothing I shall never understand. No God who cared about His creation would abandon the innocent.


Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn’t have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren’t covering.


Well, never mind how many weeks months it’s been, I’m gonna try to pick up the thread from my last post. The theme is still the criminal justice system — how it fails and who it fails. It’s quite a can of worms, and for someone like me who’s had the good fortune to avoid much contact with the cops and the courts, it’s quite an education. What I’m writing should be read in that spirit, as notes on a continuing education.

Last time the eye-opener was Alan Gell — how little it took to railroad him onto death row and how much it took to get him out. But eventually the built-in safeguards worked. They worked and worked, in fact, for about 10 years while Gell relaxed in jail. But hey, it could’ve been worse. He could’ve been in Texas and ended up like Cameron Todd Willingham.

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.” At his trial the prosecutor portrayed him as a monster. A jury agreed and sentenced him to death.

As time was running out for Willingham, a scientist and inventor named Gerald Hurst agreed to look at the forensic evidence used to convict him. Hurst’s work had been instrumental in freeing Ernest Ray Willis, another Texas death-row inmate, and he was amazed at how closely the two cases paralleled each other. He rushed out a report debunking the evidence against Willingham. This time it didn’t do the trick — Willingham was executed in Feb. 2004 — but his reports on both cases found their way to a couple of reporters at the Chicago Tribune. They consulted with several other fire experts and at the end of the year published the first exposé on Willingham. The Innocence Project and the Texas Forensic Science Commission followed with detailed reports analyzing both the Willingham and Willis cases. The unanimous opinion of the nine fire investigators who’ve reviewed Willingham’s case is that the forensics is riddled with scientific misconceptions and that no legitimate proof of arson was presented to the jury. It’s a sobering result, but in a way not so surprising. Comprehensive scientific standards for fire investigators weren’t published until 1992, and on many points those standards contradicted the conventional wisdom that had long circulated in the field.

The Willingham case got a burst of attention last fall in the wake of Grann’s article and the release of a report prepared for the Forensic Science Commission by Craig Beyler. Continue reading ›

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

Three Duke lacrosse players exonerated
Cameron Todd Willingham in jail

Above: Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann
Below: 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 the system failed [but], in the end, justice was done through the system itself.” The real failures, according to Coleman, are the sort that come into the Duke Innocence Project, which he supervises. The students who work on them “are surprised at how little evidence it took to convict the prisoner. And students are dismayed by the widespread indifference of the police, prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, the North Carolina Attorney General, and the public to the routine misconduct of some prosecutors and police officers and to the possibility that some of these prisoners may be innocent.”

I couldn’t help thinking about Coleman’s editorial when I read David Grann’s article about Cameron Todd Willingham in the New Yorker last September. The state of Texas executed Willingham in 2004. Grann makes a compelling case that he was innocent. If so he represents the ultimate failure of the justice system. Another case discussed in Grann’s article is an uncanny parallel to Willingham’s. What saved Ernest Ray Willis from the lethal injection that Texas had in store for him, too, was a really good attorney with deep pockets. It’s much the same story with Alan Gell, a North Carolina man whose overturned capital murder conviction helped set the legal stage for the lacrosse case. Continue reading ›

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Chutzpah and the honeypot

I’ve come to think of the Duke lacrosse case as kind of like a honeypot for would-be critics. In the world of network security and spam detection, a honeypot is a resource that invites abuse — an open mail relay or an unprotected comment box begging to be spammed, for instance. The idea is that the bad guys will use it and reveal themselves. Then they can, for instance, be put on a blacklist (and that’s just scratching the surface).

The analogy isn’t by any means perfect, but it captures my feeling that the lacrosse case invites opinionated people to unleash their irrational, tribalistic reflexes in a self-incriminating way. I’m sure that countless other culture-war touchstones have the same effect and this just happens to be the one I’ve paid the most attention to. The honeypot reaction is purely rhetorical. The primary source of it is the conviction that the situation is all very simple and perfectly one-sided, which means it usually comes from people who are free to reconstruct the setting and the cast of characters solely on the basis of things they’ve read and heard. Some reactions from up close are so reflexive and self-involved that they manage to fit the pattern. Houson Baker’s infamous open letter, for instance, has that tell-tale gush.

Since knee-jerk criticism isn’t exactly hard to come by, it’s especially interesting when people who are clearly capable of doing better fall into the trap. The most sobering example from the Left, for me, is the Tenured Radical, history professor Claire Potter, that is, who, over a year after the incident and in the course of writing about a completely different scandal, took some careless shots at the lacrosse team. Potter is one of the most fair-minded and thoughtful bloggers I know of, so I have to assume that in different circumstances I could easily do the same kind of thing. Looking to the Right, some of the staff at FIRE have outed themselves with overwrought commentary on the case that shows they’re not quite as nonpartisan and dedicated to principle as they claim to be. *

I have a neat little example that I saved up from last spring (a recent post sort of explains why I’m dredging this old stuff up). I probably disagree with this person on most any political question, but when he’s writing on his own blog, at least, he can be thoughtful and generous (compare his reaction to this miscarriage-of-justice story to what follows, for instance). But when he came across a Duke professor writing unapologetically about the lacrosse case, his knee commenced to jerkin’ and he cranked out a remarkably small-minded and uninformed rant. More to the point, a rant that revels in being uninformed and small-minded. Continue reading ›


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 hold your opponents to. The result is an unrelieved insult to the intelligence that many readers nonetheless take as flattery. I find the stuff morbidly fascinating but it sure gets depressing.

I should have made it a point to spend more time with higher quality work. This upcoming batch of posts won’t do much to correct the balance, but I want to at least give a nod to a couple of really fine crime articles I came across during my unplanned hiatus, both in my current periodical of choice, the New Yorker. One, written by David Grann and published back in September, is about a man executed by the state of Texas in 2004 who was almost surely innocent. The other one is a bit more recent, from December — Jeffrey Toobin’s article about Roman Polanski (“The Celebrity Defense,” but all that’s online is an abstract).

In fact I don’t have a whole lot to say about the articles themselves. A good analyst tends to disappear offstage so he can busy himself shining light on the subject. Polemical analysis is a much more selfish project. The writer has to constantly impose himself on the material to turn it into something that’s useful for his polemic, so his greasy fingerprints are all over the final product and they’re easy to single out and criticize. Toobin’s piece on Polanski is a fine piece of work but I’m finding that nothing I have to say about it as a piece of critical journalism is remotely as interesting as the subject matter. So, here’s my gloss — opinionated but hopefully not polemical. Continue reading ›


I dropped off the edge of the blogosphere pretty suddenly last summer. I owe apologies to several people for leaving unfinished business when I vanished — those I’ll try to email. Basically what happened is that things I had been putting off started to catch up to me, then a family situation arose that complicated life quite a bit, then the semester started and I had to, you know, go to work and stuff.

I have to say, though, that it turned out to be a relief to get away from this thing. When I stopped trying to write the blog I put Google Reader aside, too — I didn’t need to follow a dozen different blogs, some because I liked them and some because I really really didn’t like them. I’ve continued to get the daily HuffPost email but mostly ignored it. Going to that site is like stepping into a high school gym where a few dozen people are up on soapboxes shouting at the top of their lungs. It turns out that it’s a whole lot more pleasant to read The New Yorker and watch a little Jon Stewart now and then, just to check in on the crazies.

Going into the summer I had a backlog of half-written things that kept not getting written, and by August that had gotten pretty discouraging. Continue reading ›