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{ Tag Archives } Ernest Ray Willis

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 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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