1991: Warren McCleskey

8 comments September 25th, 2011 Headsman

Twenty years ago today, Warren McCleskey died in Georgia’s electric chair for the murder of a police officer.

Yet the “question reverberates: Did Warren McCleskey deserve the chair? For the question to outlive him is a damning commentary on capital punishment in the United States.”

The most reverberating commentary on this case was the 1987 Supreme Court decision McCleskey v. Kemp — a landmark 5-4 ruling that still shapes the way judges handle purported racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

McCleskey (the decision, not the man) “marked the end of an era in death penalty jurisprudence … reject[ing] the last major challenge to the death penalty in America” from the generation of legal tinkering reaching back to the 1960s.

McCleskey v. Kemp was decided on April 22, 1987, at which time just 70 humans had been executed since the “modern” era of capital punishment began in the 1970s. (Today, the count is well beyond 1,200.)

The victims attributed to those 70 were 83% white (77 of 93),* even though blacks and whites are murder victims in roughly equal numbers — suggesting on its face that white victims are treated as disproportionately “valuable” by prosecutors, juries, and/or judges. This was, prospectively, the case with Warren McCleskey himself, an African American who in the course of an armed robbery had gunned down (or maybe not: see below) a white off-duty policeman.

McCleskey’s appellate team marshaled a statistical study by Iowa Prof. David Baldus indicating that black murderers (to a small extent) and killers of white victims (to a greater extent) were indeed more likely to receive a death sentence in Georgia, even when controlling for dozens of other variables. “According to this model,” wrote Justice Lewis Powell for the majority, “black defendants, such as McCleskey, who kill white victims have the greatest likelihood of receiving the death penalty.”

Though it accepted evidence of a discriminatory pattern,** the high court nevertheless ruled that McCleskey was not entitled to appellate relief unless he could demonstrate that that it was at work in his specific case.

And with some reason: the import of granting constitutional relief to a claim of “endemic racism in the system” would open a Pandora’s box of appeals from America’s burgeoning carceral state.

McCleskey’s claim, taken to its logical conclusion, throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system … if we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty.

Let justice be done though the heavens fall?† Not on our dime, buddy.

This reasoning too backtracked from equal protection concerns that had helped lead a similarly bare 5-4 majority to strike down then-existing capital statutes 15 years before in an appeal originating from the same state — Furman v. Georgia. That old regime had then been replaced with a death penalty system supposedly capable of minimizing arbitrariness. McCleskey served notice that justices wouldn’t be going out of their way to hunt arbitrariness any time soon.

The Court’s remaining liberal lions — it still had such a thing in 1987 — dissented furiously from McCleskey. William Brennan replied to the majority:

Warren McCleskey’s evidence confronts us with the subtle and persistent influence of the past. His message is a disturbing one to a society that has formally repudiated racism, and a frustrating one to a Nation accustomed to regarding its destiny as the product of its own will. Nonetheless, we ignore him at our peril, for we remain imprisoned by the past as long as we deny its influence in the present.

He also found “fear that recognition of McCleskey’s claim would open the door to widespread challenges … seems to suggest a fear of too much justice.”

mccleskey_presentation_314

Brennan was on the losing side of this judgment in a larger historical sense as well — at least, the brief span of history to unfold since Warren McCleskey sat in the electric chair.

McCleskey author Lewis Powell retired a few weeks after issuing it, and not long thereafter expressed regret for the McCleskey decision.‡ Relentless death penalty foes Brennan and Thurgood Marshall would hang up the spurs within a few years. (The circus Senate hearing to place Clarence Thomas in Thurgood Marshall’s seat was ongoing when Warren McCleskey finally died.)

But the deciding vote in McCleskey was cast by freshman Reagan-appointed justice Antonin Scalia, and he’s still going strong.

Scalia was then the Court’s emerging conservative paladin, though he was so new to the Court that McCleskey’s litigators hoped he might be amenable to their suit as a swing vote. Far from it: after Thurgood Marshall’s death in the early 1990s, his donated papers were found to contain a Scalia memo that rubbished the McCleskey majority’s mere consideration of the Baldus study.

I disagree with the argument that the inferences that can be drawn from the Baldus study are weakened by the fact that each jury and each trial is unique, or by the large number of variables at issue. And I do not share the view, implicit in [Powell’s draft opinion], that an effect of racial factors upon sentencing, if it could be shown by sufficiently strong statistical evidence, would require reversal.

Since it is my view that the unconscious operation of irrational sympathies and antipathies, including racial, upon jury decisions and (hence) prosecutorial [ones], is real, acknowledged by the [cases] of this court and ineradicable, I cannot honestly say that all I need is more proof.

Shorter Scalia: racism happens, so what?§ (Ultimately, Scalia opted not to file a separate opinion explicitly making this case; he just signed on to the majority opinion.)

As squishy regret-prone jurists have left Scalia’s Court since, and hard-right ideologues joined it, 1987’s militant reactionary is now one Rick Perry victory away from being the highest court’s median vote. Now that’s moving the Overton Window.

As one might imagine, death penalty jurisprudence at One First Street NE in these latter days has become correspondingly rougher — and the problems raised by McCleskey have scarcely abated.


Although the McCleskey case is what our day’s principal is best known for, he was also caught up in one of the more everyday — but not the less disreputable — toils of the system: the phony jailhouse informant. Very late in the appeals process, McCleskey’s lawyers were finally able to show that the fellow-prisoner who testified that McCleskey admitted the shooting to him was in fact a police plant operating on a quid pro quo to reduce his own sentence. (It’s amazing how often defendants spontaneously confess to these guys; the Troy Davis case which climaxed last week also featured a jailhouse snitch.) Somehow, prosecutors forgot all along to mention that arrangement even when directly asked.

The Supremes ruled, Kafkaesquely, that this issue was procedurally out of order because McCleskey hadn’t raised it earlier, neatly ignoring that the reason he hadn’t raised it was that prosecutors were actively concealing the fact. That’s the subject of the other SCOTUS case under our man’s name, McCleskey v. Zant.

(At issue was whether McCleskey was himself the triggerman. Since he was part of the robbery gang, he was legally on the hook for capital murder whether or not he personally fired the shot; but, his death sentence turned in reality on the jury’s belief that McCleskey was the individual killer — a detail supplied by the suspect police informant. None of McCleskey’s confederates faced execution.)

The final drama this date was a “chaotic” mess of last-minute legal maneuverings, with McCleskey strapped into the chair at one point, then interrupted from his last statement to be returned to his cell, then finally hauled back to the lethal device after an early-morning telephone poll of Supreme Court justices.

* Execution demographic counts via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

** While the McCleskey court accepted Prof. Baldus’s statistical interpretations even while rejecting their constitutional import, a vigorous pro-death penalty case is made here against the reading that the modern American death penalty is racially discriminatory to any great extent.

† This Latin phrase — fiat justitia ruat caelum — is actually engraved above the sitting justices at the Georgia Supreme Court.

‡ The regret was about more than Warren McCleskey; Powell’s biographer described a complete change of heart in the June 23, 1994 New York Times:

when the retired Justice Powell said he had changed his mind about the McCleskey case, I thought he meant that he would now accept the [Baldus] statistical argument.

“No,” he replied, “I would vote the other way in any capital case … I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished.” …

Justice Powell’s experience taught him that the death penalty cannot be decently administered. As actually enforced, capital punishment brings the law itself into disrepute.

§ See Dennis Dorin, “Far Right of the Mainstream: Racism, Rights, and Remedies from the Perspective of Justice Antonin Scalia’s McCleskey Memorandum,” Mercer Law Review, 1994.

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1997: Bruce Edwin Callins, in the machinery of death

3 comments May 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Bruce Edwin Callins was executed in Texas — part of the torrid pace of executions unleashed in Texas in the late 1990s.

This small-timer would hardly rate a notice, but for the fact that Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun had chosen this otherwise forgettable murderer’s appeal to announce, in 1994, his belief that the death penalty was irreperably unconstitutional — probably the most famous comment on the death penalty to issue from the bench since capital punishment was reinstated with Blackmun’s concurrence in Gregg v. Georgia.

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.

You’ll see the quote on anti-death penalty placards and apparel from now ’til kingdom come.

But there’s a bit more to it than what fits on a bumper sticker, and Blackmun’s reasoning is worth excerpting at greater length:

Within days, or perhaps hours, the memory of Callins will begin to fade. The wheels of justice will churn again, and somewhere another jury or another judge will have the unenviable task of determining whether some human being is to live or die. We hope, of course, that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by competent counsel — someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less-than-vigorous defense truly could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will investigate all aspects of the case, follow all evidentiary and procedural rules, and appear before a judge who is still committed to the protection of defendants’ rights — even now, as the prospect of meaningful judicial oversight has diminished. In the same vein, we hope that the prosecution, in urging the penalty of death, will have exercised its discretion wisely, free from bias, prejudice, or political motive, and will be humbled, rather than emboldened, by the awesome authority conferred by the State.

But even if we can feel confident that these actors will fulfill their roles to the best of their human ability, our collective conscience will remain uneasy. Twenty years have passed since this Court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all, see Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and, despite the effort of the States and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake. This is not to say that the problems with the death penalty today are identical to those that were present 20 years ago. Rather, the problems that were pursued down one hole with procedural rules and verbal formulas have come to the surface somewhere else, just as virulent and pernicious as they were in their original form. Experience has taught us that the constitutional goal of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination from the administration of death, see Furman v. Georgia, supra, can never be achieved without compromising an equally essential component of fundamental fairness – individualized sentencing. See Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).

It is tempting, when faced with conflicting constitutional commands, to sacrifice one for the other or to assume that an acceptable balance between them already has been struck. In the context of the death penalty, however, such jurisprudential maneuvers are wholly inappropriate. The death penalty must be imposed “fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 112 (1982).

To be fair, a capital sentencing scheme must treat each person convicted of a capital offense with that “degree of respect due the uniqueness of the individual.” Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. at 605 (plurality opinion). That means affording the sentencer the power and discretion to grant mercy in a particular case, and providing avenues for the consideration of any and all relevant mitigating evidence that would justify a sentence less than death. Reasonable consistency, on the other hand, requires that the death penalty be inflicted evenhandedly, in accordance with reason and objective standards, rather than by whim, caprice, or prejudice. Finally, because human error is inevitable, and because our criminal justice system is less than perfect, searching appellate review of death sentences and their underlying convictions is a prerequisite to a constitutional death penalty scheme.

On their face, these goals of individual fairness, reasonable consistency, and absence of error appear to be attainable: courts are in the very business of erecting procedural devices from which fair, equitable, and reliable outcomes are presumed to flow. Yet, in the death penalty area, this Court, in my view, has engaged in a futile effort to balance these constitutional demands, and now is retreating not only from the Furman promise of consistency and rationality, but from the requirement of individualized sentencing as well. Having virtually conceded that both fairness and rationality cannot be achieved in the administration of the death penalty, see McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 313 , n. 37 (1987), the Court has chosen to deregulate the entire enterprise, replacing, it would seem, substantive constitutional requirements with mere aesthetics, and abdicating its statutorily and constitutionally imposed duty to provide meaningful judicial oversight to the administration of death by the States.

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years, I have endeavored — indeed, I have struggled — along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question — does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants “deserve” to die? — cannot be answered in the affirmative.

Antonin Scalia, never one to let pass an opinion he could just as easily scorn, issued his retort in a concurrence with the 8-1 opinion to execute Callins:

Convictions in opposition to the death penalty are often passionate and deeply held. That would be no excuse for reading them into a Constitution that does not contain them, even if they represented the convictions of a majority of Americans. Much less is there any excuse for using that course to thrust a minority’s views upon the people.

Justice Blackmun begins his statement by describing with poignancy the death of a convicted murderer by lethal injection. He chooses, as the case in which to make that statement, one of the less brutal of the murders that regularly come before us, the murder of a man ripped by a bullet suddenly and unexpectedly, with no opportunity to prepare himself and his affairs, and left to bleed to death on the floor of a tavern.* The death-by-injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable next to that. It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us, which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional, for example, the case of the 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!

Scalia’s mention of the “case of the 11-year-old girl” isn’t about Callins at all. The monster Scalia refers to here as obviously execution-worthy for his incendiary crime is Henry Lee McCollum … who in 2014 would be exonerated by DNA evidence after some 30 years on death row.

* Specifically, Callins wasted the patron of a strip bar who was insufficiently prompt at giving up his wallet. The $3 he took from the dying man’s pockets wouldn’t even have been enough to make it rain.

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1786: Hannah Ocuish, age 12

16 comments December 20th, 2008 Caitlin GD Hopkins

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

On December 20, 1786, the Sheriff of New London, Conn., led a distraught 12-year-old girl to the gallows, placed a rope around her neck, and hanged her in front of a crowd of spectators. The girl was Hannah Ocuish, a young member of the Pequot nation. She was charged with the murder of six-year-old Eunice Bolles, a white girl with whom Hannah had quarreled the previous summer.

While it is difficult to get a clear picture of Hannah’s life from the available sources, it is clear that hers was not a comfortable existence. An appendix to Rev. Henry Channing’s execution sermon notes that Hannah’s mother was “an abandoned creature, much addicted to the vice of drunkenness,” who sent Hannah to work as a servant in a white family’s home. At the age of six, Hannah was accused of beating a white child while trying to steal her necklace. The anonymous author describes Hannah’s character thus:

Her conduct, as appeared in evidence before the honorable Superior Court was marked with almost every thing bad. Theft and lying were her common vices. To these were added a maliciousness of disposition which made the children in the neighborhood much afraid of her. She had a degree of artful cunning and sagacity beyond many of her years.

This description, expressed in terms designed to emphasize the importance of training children in obedience, may or may not be accurate. Regardless, all evidence suggests that Hannah was alone in a hostile world.

On July 21, 1786, someone found Eunice Bolles’ body at the side of the road outside Norwich, Conn. The corpse displayed signs of extreme trauma: “the head and body were mangled in a shocking manner, the back and one arm broken, and a number of heavy stones placed on the body, arms and legs.” Investigators questioned Hannah, who initially denied any involvement, but mentioned that she had seen a group of boys on the road earlier. The town officials did not believe her. On July 22, “she was closely questioned, but repeatedly denied that she was guilty.” Still unconvinced, the investigators “carried [Hannah] to the house where the body lay, and being charged with the crime, burst into tears and confessed that she killed her, saying if she could be forgiven she would never do so again.”

Hannah’s confession, which was accepted as truth by the court, indicated that she had sought revenge on Eunice because the younger girl had “complained of her in strawberry time … for taking away her strawberries.” When Hannah saw Eunice walking to school alone, she beat and choked her, covering the body with rocks “to make people think that the wall fell upon her and killed her.”

Rev. Henry Channing, a talented local minister, visited Hannah in prison many times, urging her to repent so that her soul might be spared. On the day of her execution, he delivered a thundering sermon entitled, God Admonishing His People of Their Duty as Parents and Masters, which held Hannah up as an example of what could happen if parents did not raise their children to be “dutiful and obedient.”

Her crimes, he argued, were the “natural consequences of too great parental indulgence,” and warned that “appetites and passions unrestrained in childhood become furious in youth; and ensure dishonour, disease and an untimely death.” In the portion of the sermon directed at Hannah herself, Channing did his best to scare her into repentance:

HANNAH! — prisoner at the bar– agreeably to the laws of the land you have arraigned, tried and convicted of the crime of murder … The good and safety of society requires, that no one, of such a malignant character, shall be suffered to live, and the punishment of death is but the just demerit of your crime: and the sparing you on account of your age, would, as the law says, be of dangerous consequence to the publick, by holding up an idea, that children might commit such atrocious crimes with impunity … And you must consider that after death you must undergo another trial, infinitely more solemn and awful than what you have here passed through, before that God against whom you offended; at whose bar the deceased child will appear as a swift witness against you — And you will be condemned and consigned to an everlasting punishment, unless you now obtain a pardon, by confessing and sincerely repenting of your sins, and applying to his sovereign grace, through the merits of his Son, Jesus Christ, for mercy, who is able and willing to save the greatest offenders, who repent and believe in him.

At her trial in October, Hannah “appeared entirely unconcerned,” but as the date of her execution approached, she began to show fear. In early December, visitors began to ask her how long she had to live, and Hannah “would tell the Number of her Days with manifest Agitation.” On December 19th, she “appeared in great Distress . . . and continued in Tears most of the Day, and until her Execution.” Witnesses to her execution reported that Hannah “seemed greatly afraid when at the Gallows.” With her last words, she “thanked the Sheriff for his kindness, and launched into the eternal World.”

In the United States, the youngest children put to death by the government have all be children of color. James Arcene, a Cherokee boy, was only 10 or 11 years old when he was hanged for committed a robbery and murder that resulted in his 1885 hanging in Arkansas.* At 12, Hannah Ocuish was the youngest female offender executed by any state. In the 20th century, the youngest children executed were both African-American: 13-year-old Fortune Ferguson of Florida (1927) and 14-year-old George Stinney of South Carolina (1944).

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for criminals who committed their crimes as juveniles (Roper v. Simmons). The court split 5-4, with Jutices Scalia, O’Connor, Thomas, and Chief Justice Rehnquist dissenting. In his dissent, Justice Scalia excoriated the majority for considering international consensus (along with the laws of 30 of the 50 U.S. states) on the cruelty of executing children under the age of 18 when determining the standard for “cruel and unusual.” Justice Scalia, an avowed proponent of Constitutional originalism, proclaimed, “I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members of this Court and like-minded foreigners.”

* This post originally asserted that Arcene was a juvenile when hanged. In fact, he was (or claimed to have been) 10 years old or so at the time he committed the crime, but was not tried and hanged until over a decade later. (This is corrected in the Arcene post.) -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Connecticut,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Women

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2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?

37 comments February 17th, 2008 David Elliot

(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)

Update: Heartbreaking New Yorker article shreds the state’s case.

Polling data reveals interesting things about U.S. public opinion and the death penalty. If you ask an open-ended question about the death penalty –- for example, “Do you feel the death penalty is appropriate for certain egregious crimes?” –- then you usually see somewhere around a 65 to 35 percent split in favor. On the other hand, if you ask which is preferred – the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the results tend to be closer to 50-50.

Upon occasion, another question is asked: Do you feel an innocent person has been put to death in the U.S.? The results are pretty emphatic: Americans don’t trust their government to get it right, and they do believe innocent people have been executed, by a ratio of about three to one.

So the question fairly arises: Have innocent people been executed in the U.S. in what we sometimes refer to as the “modern era,” i.e., since executions were allowed to resume in 1976?

Enter Cameron Todd Willingham.

On Feb. 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was strapped to a gurney in a Texas death chamber as he declared his innocence for the last time. Minutes later, he was executed by lethal injection. In December of the same year, the Chicago Tribune uncovered secrets behind the Willingham case, addressing questions left unanswered and raising doubts left unacknowledged.

The Fatal Fire

Cameron Todd Willingham with one of his purported victims — his daughter, Amber.

On Dec. 23, 1991, Willingham was at home with his three daughters. His wife, Stacy, left their home in the morning to pay the bills and shop for Christmas gifts at a Salvation Army store. The family had been struggling that year; Todd, as everyone called him, had recently been laid off, and Stacy was supporting the family with her wages from a bar. The Willinghams were two months behind on rent, and they had even stopped paying some bills in order to save money for Christmas.

Willingham recalled waking up briefly as his wife was leaving the home around 9 a.m. When he heard their one-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron, crying, he woke up to feed them and went back to sleep. About an hour later, his two-year-old daughter Amber woke him with her cries, and the house was already full of smoke. Willingham remembers not being able to see “anything but black” toward the front of the house.

The circuits were popping throughout the home as Willingham frantically went to his daughters’ bedroom. At this point, his hair caught on fire, and he was able to see little more than the glowing of the ceiling. Willingham called out for his children and felt along the floor and bed for them, but he could not find them. This is when debris began falling from the ceiling, causing him to burn his shoulder. He fled the home through the front door.

After fleeing his house, he asked his neighbors to call the fire department and screamed to them, “My babies is in there and I can’t get them out.” A neighbor, Mary Barbee, then asked other neighbors to place the call because her own telephone was disconnected. Willingham reported that, while this was happening, he tried to re-enter his home, but it was too hot. Then, he knocked out two bedroom windows with a pool cue, but could not get into the bedroom.

Buvin Smith arrived on the scene after hearing the neighbor’s call over a radio scanner. Smith remembered restraining Willingham from going onto the porch, and heard him yelling that his “babies were in the house” and noticed that he was “acting real hysterical.”

A Circumstantial Case

Almost immediately, Willingham became a suspect. According to the Chicago Tribune, prosecutors often are able to rely on circumstantial evidence in cases when a child dies and the parent survives. In this case, the prosecution convinced the jury that Willingham killed his children because they interfered with his beer-drinking, dart-throwing lifestyle. The jury believed it.

Neighbors told investigators that they did not believe Willingham tried hard enough to save his children. In fact, Barbee said that she saw Willingham standing by the fence as heavy smoke came out of the windows. Also, she told investigators that Willingham seemed more concerned with moving his car away from the burning house as the windows blew out than with saving his children.

Willingham’s wounds were treated shortly after the fire. Firefighters did not think that his burns were severe enough had he indeed searched for his daughters in the manner he described. His shoulder, back, and hair were burned, but his bare feet were not burned at the bottom.

Police stated that, the day after the fire, Willingham complained about not being able to find a dartboard in the wreckage of his home. Others mentioned hearing loud music and laughter in the following days as the couple attempted to salvage their belongings.

A police chaplain grew suspicious that Willingham’s hysterics during the fire were not genuine. The chaplain, George Monaghan, noted that Willingham seemed “too distraught.”

In addition to these evaluations of Willingham’s behavior, fire investigators reported over 20 indicators of arson. These include the “crazed glass,” or the web-like cracks in the glass. Until more recent research was completed, arson specialists believed this to be a clear indication that an accelerant had been used in the fire. The fire experts also noted that the fire had reached a stage known as flashover, when a fire reaches such a high temperature that an explosion results. This further supported their reasoning that an accelerant had been used.

Willingham was charged with murder on Jan. 8, 1992, just two weeks after the fire. In August of the same year, his trial began, after Willingham turned down a deal from the prosecution and insisted that he was innocent. During the trial prosecutors presented inmate Johnny E. Webb as a witness. He testified that Willingham confessed at the county jail to killing his children in order to cover up the fact that his wife, Stacy, had been physically abusing them. Webb, a recovering drug addict, was taking psychiatric medication to relieve post-traumatic stress syndrome. The prosecution also presented as witnesses the neighbors who claimed that Willingham should have done more. Fire investigators Doug Fogg and Manuel Vasquez also testified at Willingham’s trial. Both of these investigators testified in court that the fire was caused by arson.

Both of these investigators testified to assumptions about fire that have been scientifically proven to be wrong.

Forensic Evidence Reconsidered

When the Chicago Tribune investigated the case, several experts reviewed documents, trial testimony, and video documentation of the fire scene and concluded that the original investigation was terribly flawed. Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist, and John Lentini, John DeHaan, both private consultants specializing in fire investigation, along with Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland, examined the materials. They suggest that this fire may have been simply accidental.

After the Chicago Tribune investigation, Lentini worked with the Innocence Project to assemble an independent, peer-review panel of arson experts. The five-member panel –- with a combined 138 years in high-level fire investigation experience –- issued a 44-page report (.pdf) on the case.

They determined that “each and every one” of the forensic interpretations made by the state’s experts at Willingham’s trial was not scientifically valid. For example, the original investigators determined that an accelerant was used because wood cannot burn hot enough to melt aluminum. In fact, according to these leading experts, it can.

The 1991 investigators also claimed that the brown rings on the Willingham’s front porch indicated accelerant usage. Experts called this “baseless speculation,” explaining that fire-hose water often leaves brown rings on surfaces after evaporation.

Was it Known Before the Execution?

This information didn’t only come to light recently. Shortly before Willingham was executed, Hurst reviewed the case and issued a report that dismissed every single indicator of arson Fogg and Vasquez had originally cited. What was done with this report? Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned it aside, confident of Willingham’s guilt.

Jury members are less confident now. One jury member asked, “Did anybody know about this prior to his execution? Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.”

In fact, a similar debunking of arson forensics by the same expert resulted in another Texas death row inmate’s exoneration and release — just seven months after Willingham was put to death.

Have innocent people been executed in the U.S.? Indeed they have. You can read more about other cases at www.InnocentAndExecuted.org


Update: After a 2009 New Yorker expose made Cameron Todd Willingham a byword for wrongful executions, our guest author’s former shop, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, took a cue from Justice Antonin Scalia‘s scornful dismissal of the prospect.

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.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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