Monday, August 31, 2009

The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham

The case of Cameron Todd Willingham illustrates several of the themes that have appeared on this blog, as well as in my comments at other blogs. Among them are the unreliability of some kinds of forensic evidence, the problem of inadequate legal representation of indigent defendants, and the malleability of eyewitness accounts to fit post hoc narratives. A recent article in the New Yorker ( casts grave doubt on the quality of initial finding that Mr. Willingham murdered his three children by setting their house on fire. “What’s more, [fire scientist] Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, ‘not only the standards of today but even of the time period.’”

The author, David Grann, notes that indigent defendants on death row must “depend on court-appointed lawyers, many of whom are ‘unqualified, irresponsible, or overburdened,’ as a study by the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization, put it. In 2000, a Dallas Morning News investigation revealed that roughly a quarter of the inmates condemned to death in Texas were represented by court-appointed attorneys who had, at some point in their careers, been ‘reprimanded, placed on probation, suspended or banned from practicing law by the State Bar.’” A recent NPR report implies that Michigan and Florida also have problematic public defender systems ( “In Miami, they say the only way they can squeeze in jail visits is if they work every weekend. And in Detroit, public defenders haven't seen a raise in more than 30 years.”

“Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the ‘execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.’” Mr. Grann concludes, “There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the ‘execution of a legally and factually innocent person.’”

I approach the criminal justice system as a private citizen, not as one with any special training in the law or politics. I have previously indicated that my suggestions for reforms could benefit from advice from those with greater expertise. Nevertheless, I have seen so much that is troubling that, along with others, I have to ask whether a refusal to look at evidence of innocence is sometimes motivated from cognitive dissonance.