The San Antonio Express News Editorial Board says that there is “not a shred of evidence” that supports the theory that the fire in the Todd Willingham case was arson, and “the overwhelming evidence is that investigators, prosecutors, court appointed defense attorneys, jury members, appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, finally, Gov. Rick Perry failed and Texas executed an innocent man.
If you agree with the San Antonio Express News, then sign the petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.
The one argument that gives even death penalty proponents pause is the prospect that the state might put an innocent person to death. Death penalty cases have multiple layers of appeals and reviews that are intended to avoid such an eventuality. Does that process work?
In recent years, the exoneration with DNA evidence of scores of death row inmates nationwide — including many from Texas — has raised serious questions about the way some death penalty defendants are represented and treated in the criminal justice system. Still, while there have been doubts raised about some cases in which executions have taken place, no one has been able to point to a case where an innocent person was clearly put to death.
That may be about to change. Journalist David Grann, writing in the Sept. 7 issue of the New Yorker magazine, makes a compelling argument that when the state of Texas gave Todd Willingham a lethal injection in 2004, it executed an innocent man.
Willingham was sentenced to death for the murder of his three children by arson. A review of the case by experts finds the determination of arson as the cause of the fire that consumed the Willingham home in Corsicana in 1991 was utterly faulty.
In 2005, Texas created a commission to investigate forensic errors in criminal cases. One of the first cases the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed was the Willingham case.
As Grann notes, a fire scientist hired by the commission issued a scathing report. He found that “investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of … fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.”
In a letter last month to the Corsicana Daily Sun, state District Judge John H. Jackson Sr., who sent Willingham to death row as a prosecutor, responded to the mounting evidence of a wrongful execution. “The trial testimony you reported in 1991,” he wrote, “contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.”
In fact, beyond the forensic evidence that Jackson now acknowledges as being flawed, there’s not a shred of evidence to support the allegation that Willingham or anyone else started the fire that killed his children. Fire experts believe it was caused by a space heater or faulty electrical wiring. In any case, there was certainly no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to send Willingham to death row.
The overwhelming evidence is that investigators, prosecutors, court appointed defense attorneys, jury members, appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, finally, Gov. Rick Perry failed and Texas executed an innocent man.
Society should retain the power to apply the ultimate penalty to its most heinous and dangerous criminals. But with that power comes the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the state does not put innocent people to death. The Todd Willingham case suggests that Texas has failed in that responsibility.