The Charleston Gazette has reacted to the news of Todd Willingham’s execution by editorializing against the death penalty in “Pro-death: America a misfit”:
Almost every modern democracy has abolished the death penalty, on grounds that it’s a cruel relic from the brutal past. West Virginia likewise took this humane step – but support for executions remains strong in some parts of America.
Texas is the national leader in governmental killings. When George W. Bush was governor, he set grisly records for putting prisoners to death, and mocked one woman before her execution.
But the death penalty is a long, expensive, ugly business. The 13-year tale of one Texas execution is retold in the Sept. 7 New Yorker, as follows:
In 1991, in the low-income town of Corsicana northeast of Waco, fire swept a modest wooden home with a RV generator. Cameron Todd Willingham ran from the blazing structure, screaming that his three little girls were inside. He broke windows and frantically tried to reach his daughters, but firefighters restrained him. The girls died.
Arson investigators examined the ruins and concluded that the fire had been set deliberately. They said charring on the floor and baseboards proved that flammable liquid had been poured through the house – even under the girls’ beds – then ignited. No chemical residue of such fluid was found, except on the front porch, which had contained a charcoal grill and lighter.
The father was charged with triple murder of his own children. He was called a “demon” and a “sociopath.” Prosecutors told reporters that Willingham wanted rid of his daughters because they “were interfering with his beer-drinking and dart-throwing.” While he was in jail, another inmate claimed that Willingham told him he lit the fire.
The father was offered a plea-bargain: plead guilty and be spared execution. But he angrily refused, saying he didn’t kill his daughters. He couldn’t afford lawyers and was given court-appointed attorneys. They presented little evidence and wouldn’t let him testify. He was sentenced to death in 1992.
Year after year, he sat on death row amid psychotic killers, while pointless appeals went through court channels. In 1999, a volunteer woman teacher began visiting him and gathering evidence of his innocence. The fellow prisoner who claimed that Willingham had confessed reversed his story – then re-reversed it.
In 2004, an international fire and explosives expert, Dr. Gerald Hurst, agreed to study the Texas evidence at no cost. He concluded that all the “proofs” of arson alleged by the Texas investigators were erroneous. The charring of floors and baseboards that they had claimed proved the use of fire-starting liquid was just normal markings of a “flashover” fire from bedding, curtains, carpets and other combustibles, he said. In other words, there was no evidence of arson.
Dr. Hurst’s report was given to the Texas parole board and governor, but it was ignored. Willingham was executed.
Later, questions about the case began spreading, and Texas established a commission to investigate possibly mistaken executions. An expert hired by the commission agreed with Dr. Hurst: there was no evidence of arson in the girls’ deaths.
This horrible tale offers a grim prospect. Texas may finally conclude that Willingham was innocent – but it’s too late, because the state already killed him.