Field of Science

Innocent man executed

Liveblogging a reading* of a New Yorker article about a man who was exceuted in Texas for the murders of his own children, Trial by Fire. Was he innocent?

(* For the record, I've liveblogged reading an article once before, and I take full responsibility for inventing the procedure.)

Willingham's house burned one morning in 1991 or 1992, and the firemen found him outside, while his three toddlers had died from smoke inhalation. Two fire investigators examined the house after the fire was put out, and found evidence that the fire had been started by a human dousing the children's room with a flammable liquid. Other evidence also pointed to arson, and Willingham was the only suspect. He was convicted and sentence to death. He never admitted of any wrongdoing.

Interesting fact which I have often wondered about: Why is it more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for the rest of their life? Sounds like it shouldn't be true.
because of the expense of litigation and the appeals process, it costs, on average, $2.3 million to execute a prisoner in Texas—about three times the cost of incarcerating someone for forty years.
Willingham couldn't afford a lawyer, so he had one assigned. I often wonder if those lawyers that are assigned are the bottom-of-the-class kind of lawyers, of what the deal are with those.

Part of the evidence against Willingham was that a fellow inmate said that Willingham told him that he took “some kind of lighter fluid, squirting [it] around the walls and the floor, and set a fire.”

Willingham was offered a deal to serve a life sentence rather than getting the death penalty if he would plead guilty. He declined the offer.

Here's an odd fact:
Willingham’s refusal to accept the deal confirmed the view of the prosecution, and even that of his defense lawyers, that he was an unrepentant killer.
Then, either way the prosecutor and the defense lawyers would conclude that he was a killer. I'm not saying Willingham was innocent, but this is like throwing a woman into the river and saying she' a witch if she floats. Apparently no one could understand why he would not plead guilty, but I think I can. Perhaps he'd rather die than serving a life sentence and admitting something he did not do. And, if he did do it, perhaps he didn't really want to live any longer.

The trial took only two days.

Years later a woman, Gilbert, corresponds with and visits Willingham in jail. She becomes interested in the case and reads the trial records. She finds that several witnesses were inconsistent. For example,
An even starker shift occurred with Father Monaghan’s testimony. In his first statement, he had depicted Willingham as a devastated father who had to be repeatedly restrained from risking his life. Yet, as investigators were preparing to arrest Willingham, he concluded that Willingham had been too emotional (“He seemed to have the type of distress that a woman who had given birth would have upon seeing her children die”); and he expressed a “gut feeling” that Willingham had “something to do with the setting of the fire.”

Dozens of studies have shown that witnesses’ memories of events often change when they are supplied with new contextual information. Itiel Dror, a cognitive psychologist who has done extensive research on eyewitness and expert testimony in criminal investigations, told me, “The mind is not a passive machine. Once you believe in something—once you expect something—it changes the way you perceive information and the way your memory recalls it.”
Interesting facts, those.

So this woman, Gilbert, talks to a lot of people who knew Willingham, and some of them weren't so sure that he was guilty. Some said they "could not imagine him killing his children." At this point I feel like saying, though, that I regard this kind of statement as not meaning anything much, really. I don't think it plausible that of all the guilty criminals it isn't possible to find someone they knew who would say such a thing. Most of the time people who commit crimes are probably behaving themselves very well, not showing signs of sociopathy or any such thing.
When Stacy [Willingham's wife and mother of the three children] was on the stand, Jackson [the prosecutor] grilled her about the “significance” of Willingham’s “very large tattoo of a skull, encircled by some kind of a serpent.”
“It’s just a tattoo,” Stacy responded.
“He just likes skulls and snakes. Is that what you’re saying?”
“No. He just had—he got a tattoo on him.”
The prosecution cited such evidence in asserting that Willingham fit the profile of a sociopath
Think about that before you get your first tattoo. And don't listen to heavy metal:
At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60—a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s house—and asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.”
Gilbert finds that more evidence is bogus, particularly the testimony by the fellow inmate, who looks like he lied about that whole confession-in-prison thing.

Another wow-fact:
During America’s Colonial period, dozens of crimes were punishable by death, including horse thievery, blasphemy, “man-stealing,” and highway robbery.
Even blasphemy? One more of those:
In 1868, John Stuart Mill made one of the most eloquent defenses of capital punishment, arguing that executing a murderer did not display a wanton disregard for life but, rather, proof of its value. “We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself,” he said. For Mill, there was one counterargument that carried weight—“that if by an error of justice an innocent person is put to death, the mistake can never be corrected.”
But it happens:
In 1993, Ruben Cantu was executed in Texas for fatally shooting a man during a robbery. Years later, a second victim, who survived the shooting, told the Houston Chronicle that he had been pressured by police to identify Cantu as the gunman, even though he believed Cantu to be innocent. Sam Millsap, the district attorney in the case, who had once supported capital punishment (“I’m no wild-eyed, pointy-headed liberal”), said that he was disturbed by the thought that he had made a mistake.
Liberals are pointy-headed? What does that mean? But true, I have read elsewhere that one of the traits of conservatives is that they don't have a huge problem with some innocent people suffering when it's for the sake of the whole community; they can live fine with social injustice. Liberals not so much. Me, not a chance. Scalia just denies that it has ever happened:
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2006, voted with a majority to uphold the death penalty in a Kansas case. In his opinion, Scalia declared that, in the modern judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

• • • • • • •

But, ladies and gentlemen, the really phenomenal part of this story in the New Yorker comes in the end (it's an article of over 16 thousand words).

It turns out that the evidence that the fire was lit by a human was all bogus. Bogus science. The two investigators didn't really know what they were talking about, and they made the usual assumptions about what causes certain tell-tale signs, and they turned out to be wrong. The science didn't hold up, and when a third expert, Hurst, examined the evidence only weeks before Willingham was to be executed, he found that all the signs of arson really pointed to “flashover”—the point at which radiant heat causes a fire in a room to become a room on fire.

But Hurst was too late.
The warden told Willingham that it was time. Willingham, refusing to assist the process, lay down; he was carried into a chamber eight feet wide and ten feet long. The walls were painted green, and in the center of the room, where an electric chair used to be, was a sheeted gurney. Several guards strapped Willingham down with leather belts, snapping buckles across his arms and legs and chest. A medical team then inserted intravenous tubes into his arms. Each official had a separate role in the process, so that no one person felt responsible for taking a life.
(Emphasis added.)
After his death, his parents were allowed to touch his face for the first time in more than a decade. Later, at Willingham’s request, they cremated his body and secretly spread some of his ashes over his children’s graves. He had told his parents, “Please don’t ever stop fighting to vindicate me.”
Remember Scalia's claim?
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.”
Suck on that, Scalia!

Abolish the death penalty now!


  1. That's a truly horrible story. I doubt I would plead guilty in such circumstances. I'd rather die than have to live a lie that I killed my own kids.

    There are lots of reasons to abolish the death penalty (I think it barbarises society), but the fact that so many innocent people die, and so many guilty people live, is a clincher.

  2. And I think that clincher is also what would bother Scalia, except of course that he doesn't believe it to be true.

  3. I used to favor the death penalty, for a few crimes (premeditated murder, for instance), provided we could be certain that the guy on trial was actually guilty. Time has shown, however, that it is very, very hard to be sure enough, and that new technologies seem inevitably to blow great, huge holes in the past's "certain" verdicts.

    Now...not so much. Hard enough to recompense someone for time unjustly spent imprisoned; how the hell do you recompense someone for his life?


  4. "In his opinion, Scalia declared that, in the modern judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit."

    Must be nice to be American and to have such faith in your legal system. If I'm guilty of blind scepticism in any area, it'd be in the legal system. There have just been too many cases in the UK where results have been politically expedient, or people have been found guilty of crimes just because they fit the stereotype.

    My Dad worked for years on developing flame retardant plastics, so I've seen a few fire safety videos with mock houses going up in flames. I wouldn't like to pass judgement on the way that any person reacted to their house burning down - a fire at flashpoint is absolutely terrifying.


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