No Shelter for the Powerful: Death Penalty, Torture, and Willingham

Everyone is, and should be, talking about a recent New Yorker article by David Grann documenting collapse of the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, accused of murdering his own children. Unfortunately, unlike many of the people spared death row after being exonerated by DNA evidence, it’s now far too late for Willingham: he received a lethal injection almost 6 years ago now.

It’s one thing to accept that having the death penalty might risk the occasional execution of an innocent person. But if Willingham is indeed found to be innocent (or at least that the basis of his indictment premised on phony forensics and false
testimony) it won’t simply be a case where a careful system tragically got one wrong, and that it should maybe think about some additional safeguards. It will instead be a case in which outright negligence and sheer disinterest in the cause of justice at nearly every level of the Texas justice system all conspired to bring about a predictable result: the legally endorsed murder of a human being.

In a perfectly just world, the members of Texas’ parole board and the state’s governor himself (Rick Perry) would face charges of, at a bare minimum, criminally negligent homicide. Any private citizen in an analogous situation, given power over life or death and then acting with such sheer indifference to that duty, would face that sort of consequence.

But, of course, we instead live in a world where the powerful and well-connected are now openly expressing outrage at the very idea of ever being subjected to such oversight or remonstration. Oversight, investigation, justice: they claim such things would make them too scared to do what needs to be done, whenever they deem it necessary: torture, murder, and death warrants signed without even a glance at astounding circumstances that demand at least a sincere consideration of clemency.

And it’s high time that we declared such evasions unacceptable. We have a legal system whose central purpose is to make people conscious of the consequences of their actions: to make sure that even when they care nothing for their victims, they at least fear for their own skins.

Texan officials found it extremely easy not to empathize with Willingham and thus ignore their duty to carefully reconsider his guilt. All they needed to do was to imagine, in turn, that he himself had acted without any empathy towards his victims.

But the law exists condemn to both. And if Willingham was in fact innocent it’s doubly abhorrent that he will be the only one to pay a price.


~ by Drew on 2009/08/31.

3 Responses to “No Shelter for the Powerful: Death Penalty, Torture, and Willingham”

  1. This is one of the reasons why I think the standard for executing someone is too low. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a fine standard for convicting someone of the crime. However, for capital punishment, I think is should be “without a doubt.”

  2. 1) “Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
    “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann–the-death-penalty.aspx

    This was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall’s report, below:

    2) EXCLUSIVE: City report on arson probe:
    State panel asks for city response in Willingham case

    3) No Doubts

    For a collection of articles, go to:

    Corsicana Daily Sun, The Willingham Files

    OTHER REPORTS: There is the potential for, at least, 3 more, official, reports on this case: the Texas Fire Marshall’s office, which will give an official and requested reply, the Corsicana Police Dept. and Navarro County District Attorney’s office, both of which, I speculate, may only contribute to the TFM report, but could issue their own reports.

    There is an official “report” which, it appears, few have paid attention to – the trial transcript.

    I find that rather important because, at least five persons, who were involved with the trial, the prosecutor, defense attorney, two surviving fire investigators and a juror have all voiced support for the verdict, still, in the light of the criticism of the arson forensics.

    One of those original fire investigators is, now, an active certified arson expert.

    • I still find it bizarre that these guys think refusing a polygraph (a highly unreliable technique repeatedly shown to have little or no scientific validity in determining guilt) is evidence of sociopathy. It’s like saying that someone refused a Tarot card reading, and thus they have no remorse. In general, it’s very common for people on the side of the prosecution to develop beliefs that the people they are accusing are monsters, especially after imposing a death sentence. But of course people who are essentially being attacked and accused of murder by someone else are not going to be friendly or cordial to their accusers. People also tend to look for certain specific signs of grieving or certain reactions and draw conclusions about people’s mental states when they don’t find those specific reactions. But people react to traumatic events in wildly unpredictable ways. The fact that Willingham gave confused or different explanations for what might have caused the fire could be evidence of duplicity… or just of his own confusion and attempts to speculate what might have happened. Presenting them as unequivocally implying one or the other is a problematic place to start.

      Was Willingham a monster? I have no way of knowing. But the people quoted in the article do not seem to be worthwhile judges of character either, especially given the dubious reliability of the examples they cite (for instance, cruelty to animals and physically abusing a spouse are indeed common factors with sociopaths… but they are also sadly common in the general non-sociopathic population as well, meaning that they are not reliable as indicators). Willingham certainly may have been a remarkably selfish and brutish person: the fact remains that this is not itself a case for murder.

      That said, these articles raise some important points and counter-arguments that have to be addressed as this debate continues.

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