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Willingham Prosecutor Cleared

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The anti-death-penalty crowd very earnestly desires a case of a demonstrably innocent person actually executed, and if they can't find a real one they will just invent one.  Employing the Lenin Principle, if they can simply repeat enough times that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent of burning to death his baby daughters, he will become innocent.  The original New Yorker article on the case was a shameless piece of propaganda, as demonstrated in this post.  After the first year, it seemed like we were making some progress on balanced coverage, as noted in this post, but as time went on the only people interested in the case were those with an anti-death-penalty agenda, and that has become the overwhelmingly dominant narrative.

In their quest, they went after the original prosecutor in the case for a claimed Brady disclosure violation.  Interestingly, in Texas you can take a bar discipline case to a local jury, so that is what former prosecutor (and now judge) John Jackson did.

Regrettably, the only coverage on the decision I can find is by the Marshall Project, an advocacy group masquerading as journalists.  So we have to take the story with a heaping tablespoon of salt.  The WaPo is printing this report instead of devoting actual journalism resources to it.  Update:  Michael Kormos has this article on the verdict in the Corsicana Daily Sun, the local paper for the venue.  Regrettably, the article has no information on the trial or the evidence presented that convinced the jury the charges were groundless.

A Texas jury on Wednesday found that a former state prosecutor did not commit misconduct in the 1992 death penalty trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was convicted of -- and later executed for -- setting a fire that killed his three daughters, outcomes that were based in part on jailhouse testimony recanted after his death.

Jurors in Navarro County rejected claims by the State Bar of Texas that former prosecutor John Jackson made false statements, concealed evidence favorable to Willingham's defense and obstructed justice.

Now notice how the Marshall Project describes the prosecution's case:

The state bar accused Jackson of failing to disclose to Willingham's attorneys that jailhouse informant Johnny Webb had been promised favorable treatment on an aggravated robbery conviction in return for testimony at Willingham's trial. The prosecution's case against Willingham was two-pronged: testimony from fire investigators that debris analysis showed that the blaze was deliberately set and Webb's assertion that Willingham had confessed.

Actually, there were more than two prongs.  Willingham's own statements and actions were strong evidence against him.  Probably the most important fact of all is that the hospital measured his blood carbon dioxide level.  He was not inside a smoke-filled house that day.  Can't mention that, though.  It gets in the way of the agenda.

Weeks before the execution, an independent fire expert concluded there was no evidence the fire was deliberately set. Other experts during the following decade also reached the same conclusion.
There is a huge difference between "X has not been proved true" and "X has been proved false," but few people reading this story would pick up on that.  Misunderstanding of this subtle yet critical distinction has been a mainstay of the Willingham crusade.  If the forensic evidence proves neither accidental nor intentional setting, we must look to other evidence, not conclude that the fire was accidental.

5 Comments

Regarding only that first dissenting fire expert's report (I haven't read the more recent reports), even that man's report said nothing which would disprove the conclusion of arson. Everything in the report was entirely consistent with a finding of arson. The report only served to lessen the weight of evidence pointing exclusively to arson, while completely allowing that conclusion. In fact, though, the report was clearly intended to debunk the arson finding, and went overboard in, for instance, trying to quote comments from the original investigators in such a fashion as to reduce their credibility, and by minimizing or ignoring facts which would confirm arson while emphasizing the uncertainties. It was completely biased although it did make valid points.
Local fire officials did offer a written rebuttal (to the critical report) which I thought convincing, but finding that response in the media reporting is impossible. it doesn't exist in the media records.

There is definitely a good reason to distinguish between Kirk Bloodworth innocence and the DPIC's "innocence" list. And the press' general swallowing on "innocence" tall tales is unseemly, to say the least. Many good people have been smeared by this campaign, and it is appalling.

I would take some issue with this

There is a huge difference between "X has not been proved true" and "X has been proved false," but few people reading this story would pick up on that. Misunderstanding of this subtle yet critical distinction has been a mainstay of the Willingham crusade. If the forensic evidence proves neither accidental nor intentional setting, we must look to other evidence, not conclude that the fire was accidental.

Bad forensic evidence used against someone (whether guilty or not) is problematic (for one thing, it undermines the jury system). I think that those of us on the law and order side can never lose sight of that. Plus it gives us the high ground where the other side clearly does not have it. With respect to Willingham, it appears that the allegations of bad forensics appear to have been overblown, but we should always note the caveat that the criminal justice system should always strive to get the forensics right.

Willingham was guilty as sin. In a bygone era where forensic science wasn't anywhere close to being developed, his own story about walking past the kids' bedrooms to escape would have been enough to literally and figuratively hang him. (Note: I am going from memory on this, but I think I have the facts right--apologies if I do not.)

Not sure what issue you are taking. The paragraph you quote is addressed solely to logical inferences about this case, which you seem to agree with, and not at all inconsistent with your position regarding the general problem of bad forensic evidence.

Well, we have the opinions of a number a national experts (on
arson fire ) that the fire in the Willingham home was not deliberately set. Against that, we have the opinions of the Corsicana fire investigators that the fire was, in fact, an arson fire.

You can argue that the competence and experience of the two local investigators is clearly on a par with the skill and knowledge of the national experts, but really, why would you?

You could also argue that the very negative view of Cameron Willingham, shared by many of the local townspeople of Corsicana, Texas, in no way biased their view about his guilt or innocence of the murder of three children. When the locals say that, in effect, they don't care what the national experts have to say, they know Cameron Willingham murdered his children, you could say, "Well, this is the wisdom of people in a small, Texas town." But why would you?

You could say that Elizabeth Gilbert-- the writer who initially agreed to correspond with a random inmate on the Texas Death Row, and who, after many months of personal research came to believe that Willingham had been wrongfully convicted, is, obviously, an unhinged,
misguided person who is 'soft on crime.' But why would you?

You could accept Webb's testimony that Willingham spontaneously confessed his guilt in a jailhouse conversation, the one and only time he did so. And that John Jackson had no idea that Webb would come forward with this story, just no idea at all, but why would you?

You could say that Governor Perry, that Solomon of Justice, knew that Willingham was guilty of arson murder, and so could not be bothered to read the report from a fire expert that challenged the conviction. Perry then peremptorily denied the motion to delay the execution--to allow for review of this new evidence. Governor Rick Perry, national expert on arson fire, possessed with such keen intelligence that he could not remember the name of the federal departments he wanted to dismantle. You could, but why would you?

You could say that when Governor Perry fired three member of the Texas Commission (appointed to review the validity of the arson evidence used to convict Willingham), he did so out of a commitment
to best judicial practice in the Texas courts, but why would you?

Well, I could go on. But you get the point. Or, perhaps you don't. I mean, you know that Willingham was guilty as sin. And really, what more do we need? You know he was guilty. Let's just forget about it.
Ah, if we could only see things as clearly as you do, well, we would all sleep better at night.

As one of the residents of Corsicana later said, "It's too bad we couldn't have executed (Willingham) three times, once for each of the children he murdered." Amen.

Paul,

You have commented on a thread over two months old that it is unlikely anyone else is reading. I'm not going to spend the time to write a point-by-point rebuttal under those circumstances.

I will note, though, that your first paragraph seems to indicate a lack of understanding of the logical difference between "X has not been proved true" and "X has been proved false." Neither the Hurst report nor the Beyler report concludes that the fire had been proved accidental. They concluded that the forensic evidence did not prove arson. Big difference.

As for the rest, some other time.

Regarding the sarcastic tone of your comment, if you wish to comment on this blog in the future, you might try simply disagreeing without being a jerk.

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