Texas May Have Executed Innocent Man

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Texas put Cameron Todd Willingham to death by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, for the murder of his three children by arson in 1991. David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has presented evidence of Willingham's innocence. He says experts later said the original arson investigators based their conclusions on "folklore" and discredited forensic evidence.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In his article in the current issue of The New Yorker, David Grann quotes former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The execution of a legally and factually innocent person, she said, would be a constitutionally intolerable event. Well, Grann concludes his story, which is called "Trial By Fire," by observing that a Texas state commission may find the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, in 2004, to have been just that. Willingham's conviction and execution for the deaths of his three young children by arson is the subject of Grann's story. And it's a very disturbing tale of how little it takes to convict someone of a crime.

David Grann joins us from our studio in New York. Welcome.

Mr. DAVID GRANN (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: In this case, the main question is was there a crime at all? A fire set to destroy the Willingham home or an accidental fire? What happened?

Mr. GRANN: Well, a fire broke out in December shortly before Christmas in 1991, at a very small house, in a place called Corsicana, Texas. And a man named Cameron Todd Willingham, who was the father, lived in the house with his wife Stacy. Stacy had left early that morning around 9 AM. And they had three children, baby twin girls. And a fire broke out of the house. And Cameron Todd Willingham was then later seen on his porch. He was - had his eyes, his hair was singed and he had soot on his chest. And he was screaming my babies are burning up, and the three children perished in the fire. Arson investigators later came into the house and found what they believed were the classic signs of arson, which were these kind of poor patterns, these kind of regular-shaped char marks on the floor, puddle configurations.

They concluded that the fire was intentionally set and that Cameron Todd Willingham had done it. He was tried, the trial lasted, in terms of its testimony, two days. He was convicted and he was sentenced to death. And he was later executed in 2004.

SIEGEL: And the case against him, well, there was a jail house snitch who said that Willingham had confessed to him one day. There was testimony about Willingham's lifestyle, I gather, how he behaved at the night of the fire, but it's mostly forensic evidence.

Mr. GRANN: Yes. I mean the bulk of the case was the forensic science, these forensic arson investigators who came in and found what they believed were 20 indicators of arson, as the lead investigator said. And these were the evidence that a crime had even taken place and was really the bulk of the case.

SIEGEL: Your article reminded me of something that Dave Mann of the Texas Observer wrote in his recent series on questionable arson convictions in Texas. He wrote that arson is one of the rare crimes in which a defendant can be convicted almost exclusively on the testimony of a forensic expert. And your article is a glimpse into what passes for expertise when it comes to forensic evidence about arson.

Mr. GRANN: That's right. Later, the leading scientist and arson investigators in the country came in and looked at this case. And they concluded that the original arson investigators had based all their conclusions on what was essentially folklore and discredited forensic evidence, and that it was, what one of the lead investigators in the country called, essentially witchcraft. And that a lot of these indicators, in fact all the indicators in the Willingham case had no scientific bases.

They were simply folklore passed down that scientific experiments had disproved. In fact, one of the top scientists in the country, a man named Craig Bylar(ph), just completed a report a few weeks ago. And he concluded there was no rational basis for what the original arson investigators relied upon and he even said that their method was characteristic of psychics and mystics.

SIEGEL: Now, this is what came out well after Willingham's conviction. What kind of a defense did he have in court initially? Did anybody bring any adverse expert witnesses in to question the arson experts' testimony?

Mr. GRANN: Now, one of the things in the story - I found very disturbing - was the systemic failures throughout this case, beginning from his original trial. His defense attorneys assume that he was guilty and in fact when they brought him a plea off for of life, he became furious and he said I won't plea to something I didn't do, especially killing my own kids. And this was seen as proof that he was somehow unrepentant rather than the possibility that maybe he was innocent. And at his trial the defense called only one witness who was a babysitter, who said she didn't think that Cameron Todd Willingham could've done this. There was no expert testimony to counter the other fire investigators. No other witnesses brought forth to question any of the other evidence.

SIEGEL: That's just the initial trial. Later on after his sentence, one of the last steps is going before the board of pardons and paroles and you describe incredible scientific evidence submitted to the people who might've taken a look, might've read it and said, this was a weak case, they didn't even read the stuff.

Mr. GRANN: Yeah. I mean, well, the fire investigators back in 1991 and early 1992 who originally investigated the case where parroting theories that were discredited even back then. By 2004, any scientist - credible scientist knew that these theories were bogus and a top fire investigator, a man named Joe Hurst(ph), looked at this case pro bono in just the weeks before Cameron Todd Willingham was scheduled to be executed. He concluded that the case was based utterly on junk science and that the fire was simply accidental, that there was no crime had ever even taken place.

He wrote up this report in such a rush that it was filled with typos. He sent it to Willingham's lawyer who sent it to the clemency board and to the governor of Texas. And there's no evidence that they debated this or held a hearing, and the clemency board rejected the petition unanimously. Even the governor, when they asked for a thirty-day delay, denied them stay.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that people who could have at least commuted Willingham's sentence, had enough evidence presented to them that they could've reached that conclusion and perhaps should have?

Mr. GRANN: I think without question. At that point, there was sufficient evidence that should've given anybody pause.

SIEGEL: The Willingham case and many others are under review by a special Texas state commission. When is it likely to report and how far might it go in judging the case that was made against him?

Mr. GRANN: It is due to release its report early next year and it's unclear how far they will go. Many legal scholars believe that they will stick strictly to the reliability of the scientific evidence and simply say the scientific evidence was utterly flawed, and not take the next step and say, an innocent man was executed. But there is a chance that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the, quote, "execution of a legally and factually innocent person."

SIEGEL: David Grann, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GRANN: Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: David Grann, whose article in the current New Yorker about the Willingham case is called, "Trial by Fire."

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