Saturday, 29 August 2009

Doubt and the Death Penalty

Cameron Todd Willingham did not make a sympathetic defendant. He was accused of one of the worst types of crime we witness in our society (murdering his children in an intentionally-set fire). He had been on the wrong side of the law since his early teens, was behind on his bills and out of a job. The jury spent less time deliberating this case than it takes many of us to commute to work. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death, declaring his innocence until a lethal injection silenced him.

Yesterday, is was reported by the Chicago Tribune that a prominent fire scientist has told a state commission reviewing the case that fire investigators had no basis to rule the fire an arson -- opening up the very real possibility that Willingham was an innocent man when the state executed him. Advances in forensic science have cast serious doubt upon Willingham's guilt.

Anyone who has spent real time defending the accused in criminal court knows without a shadow of a doubt that flaws in our justice system -- from human error during investigations to legal misconduct to jury prejudices -- create an imperfect system that leaves open the possibility of sending innocent men and women to prison. It can be difficult in high-profile cases like Willingham's, when the accusations shock and horrify us, to remember that in the United States defendants are innocent until they are proven guilty. And that as the state is making its case the defendant has the inalienable right to the strongest defense.

Although some would argue that a man who would kill his children does not deserve anything more than a cold cell or an electric chair, we do not have a double standard for justice in our country that dissolves the rights of defendants when the details of a case are sensational enough to grab our attention -- and headlines. In fact when guilt has been presupposed by the public, when the accused are looked upon as guilty until proven innocent, is when our justice system is most likely to fail us.

During my long tenure as a defense attorney, which I embarked upon after successfully prosecuting violent crimes, I defended clients whose alleged crimes were as shocking as the ones of which Willingham was accused. Many were presumed guilty because of the seriousness of their crimes. This work provided me with deep insight into the flaws of our judicial system.

Most of all, it long ago strengthened my opposition to the death penalty and my commitment to prevent wrongful convictions. Victims of crime deserve justice. Those who commit crimes must be held accountable for their actions. I will never shy away from vigorous prosecution of criminals, particularly repeat offenders. But just as we prosecute, we also must safeguard the rights of the innocent. For the more than 240 men and women who have been exonerated after wrongful convictions, several from death row, nothing can return to them the pieces of their life destroyed by our legal system. The most we can do is commit ourselves to doing everything in our power to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.

I do not regret trying challenging and sometimes unpopular cases. I would regret far more knowing that I did not do everything in my power to uphold the basis of our legal system regardless of media or societal pressure.

I have, as a candidate for District Attorney in Manhattan, called for a Conviction Integrity Panel in the DA's Office, which will put cases under a magnifying glass before they go to trial or reach a verdict, looking for all of the problems I saw as a defense attorney, which could lead to putting an innocent person in jail. Our justice system owes this to the men and women standing trial, to the victims seeking true justice, and to the men and women whose lives can never be restored after wrongful convictions.



dudleysharp said...

1. The event which caused the three childrens' deaths was the third attempt by Todd Willingham to kill his children established by the evidence. He had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages;

2. The “well-established burns” suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself;

3. Blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the homicide revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke, contrary to his statement which detailed “rescue attempts;”

4. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination. Such opportunity was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner;

5. Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. His violent nature was further established by evidence of his vicious attacks on animals which is common to violent sociopaths;

6. Witness statements established that Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, “You're not the one who was supposed to die.” (The origin of the fire occured in the infant twins bedroom) and;

7. Any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.


dudleysharp said...

Here is a compilation of various reviews of the case. (1)

Cameron Todd Willingham said his wife went out shopping and left him with the children.

Willingham alleged he was asleep late in the morning, Dec. 23, 1991. when his two year old, Amber woke him. He saw smoke, jumped out of bed, and ordered Amber out of the house. Willingham said he tried to get to the twins' room, couldn't get past the flames and ran to get help. His house had no phone.

(Sharp: Is it credible that any adult would leave a 2 year old to their own devices to exit a house on fire, when that sole adult had no idea as to the extent of the fire?)

It is alleged that, with the fire, Willingham was trying to cover up abuse of the children.

Killed were Amber Louis Kuykendall, 2, Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham, one-year-old twins.

Neighbors testified that Willingham came outdoors as the house began smoldering, before flames were visible from the outside.

Despite their pleas, Willingham refused to go into the house to attempt to rescue the children, they said.

He first pushed his car away to protect it from being burned, then "crouched down" in the front yard.

"The only way for me to get back into the house was to jump back into the flames," Willinham said. "I wouldn't do that."

Inside, Willingham's 3 young children were dying. It was 2 days before Christmas 1991.

When firefighters arrived at the burning 5-bedroom house on Corsicana's south side, the man who lived there, Willingham, was outside.

Willingham’s neighbors testified that when the fire “blew out” the windows, Willingham “hollered about his car” and ran to move it away from the fire to avoid its being damaged.

"He was engaged in pushing his car out of the way so it wouldn't be scorched by the flames," John Jackson, the prosecutor in the subsequent criminal case, recalled.

The testimony at trial demonstrates that Willingham did not grieve the loss of his three children.

A firefighter testified that Willingham showed no grief over his children's deaths, but became upset upon discovering that his dart board was burned.

Willingham's claims of heroic effort to save the girls were not borne out by his unscathed escape with little smoke in his lungs.

Willingham argued that his ex-wife's boyfriend started the blaze.

Willingham suggested a lantern lamp dumped fluid when a shelf collapsed inside the house and caught fire or his oldest daughter, who was "fascinated with everything," accidentally set off the blaze. "Either that or someone came in with the intent to kill me and the children," he said.

The testimony at trial demonstrates that Willingham neither showed remorse for his actions nor grieved the loss of his three children.

So far, none of the reports, highly critical of the trial's arson forensic testimony, excludes arson as the cause of the fire.

The basis of the criticism is that the arson testimony at trial was extremely flawed and that the basis of the arson finding was, wholly, without scientific merit, both at the time of the trial and today.

Stated another way, the arson "experts" were no such thing. Pathetic and inexcusable come to mind.

I am not sure if it is possible, today, to reach a conclusive finding that the fire was or was not arson. We will see.