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Willingham's Last Words

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The very last paragraph of David Grann's much-discussed New Yorker piece on the Willingham case is:

Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he was asked if he had any last words. He said, "The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne."

That poignant end reads almost like a Hollywood script, doesn't it?  He reasserts his innocence, and his very last words are religious. Fade to black. Well, Grann doesn't actually say those words are the very last, but that is certainly the picture the reader gets. And the statement as Grann reports it is consistent with what we might expect from a person who actually was innocent.

Is Grann's report the truth? Yes, if one defines truth in the Clintonesque way of defensible as not literally false. Is it the whole truth?

Notice: The extended portion of this post (following this paragraph and after the jump if you are viewing our main page), contains language we would not normally use on this blog. However, it is necessary in order to tell the whole truth.
In the local paper, the Corsicana Daily Sun, Janet Jacobs noted that there was more:

The article in the New Yorker quoted Willingham's protest of innocence as his final words, but Loyd Cook of the Daily Sun was one of three media witnesses at the execution. Willingham's actual final words were a venom-filled curse at his ex-wife as he attempted an obscene gesture, Cook reported.

"I hope you rot in hell, b--," Willingham said before dying.

Well, that gives a little different picture. Digging a little deeper, I went to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (which is what they call their prison department), where they very helpfully have all the last statements online. For Willingham, they have the words quoted by Grann plus, "I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. [Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.]"

All right. I understand why they don't put the b-word on a government website. But I really would like to have the full, uncensored statement. So I asked TDCJ by email, and they obliged. Here it is:

Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man -- convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return -- so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. I hope you rot in hell, bitch; I hope you fucking rot in hell, bitch. You bitch; I hope you fucking rot, cunt. That is it.

Now that is a way different exit picture than the one Grann painted for us. Not only were Willingham's very last words the diametric opposite of the high-toned, religious sentiments Grann led us to believe were the very last, but they bear on one of the most difficult things to comprehend about this case -- motive. Why would a father intentionally burn up his baby girls?

Well, as incomprehensible as it seems, we know that some fathers do kill their young children, and anger at the mother is one common reason. If that tirade was directed at his ex-wife Stacy, as the reporter who was there believed it was, it helps fill in the motive.

Witnesses are traditionally sworn to not just tell the truth, but to tell the whole truth. Securities law makes it a crime to sell stocks not only with false statements but also with misleading statements. A statement that is literally true is still effectively a lie if its author intentionally creates a false impression in the mind of the hearer or reader. Grann tells us the part of Willingham's last words that fit with the conclusion he wants us to draw but conveniently omits the part that points the other direction.

The last-words issue may be minor in the total context of the case, but it tells us a lot about where David Grann is coming from.

5 Comments

Wow- how likely is this to be widely reported around the blogosphere?

Grann's method of manipulating the truth is commonplace and routine among the anti-death penalty crowd. The practice will continue until postings such as this cause fair minded journalists to be automatically skeptical of similar claims.

Of course, one cannot convict a guy based on what he says when he's about to die, but this is pretty eye-opening, as is the shoddy journalism.

One would think that a man about to be executed for the deaths of his kids would be more upset about his children's deaths than his own, even twelve years later. Most people would gladly trade their lives so that their children don't get permanently injured, let alone killed. His final words, it seems to me, are inconsistent with how most people would react.

I agree that he played up the Hollywood ending a bit with that quote. But don't read too much into it; Willingham had plenty of reason to be mad at Stacy. She'd recently decided he was guilty of the crime (based on having finally read the court transcript and reading the words of the now-discredited "experts") and had denied his request to be buried next to the body of the children he loved so much.

If y'all have been following the news, you realize that Grann isn't "manipulating the truth". It's becoming a big deal that an innocent man was very likely executed.

Sorry, skippy, but I don't buy it. While other matters remain disputable and debatable, the last words issue is a smoking gun. Grann intentionally misled the readers with something that he knew painted a false picture. There is zero legitimate journalistic reason for that. The only reason is caring more about the impact than the truth.

I have been following the case, and the more that comes out about it, the less likely Willingham's innocence becomes.

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