September 2, 2009

Will Texas arson case change death penalty debate?

Pundits are predicting that an in-depth New Yorker expose on the Cameron Todd Willingham case may change the face of the death penalty debate.

David Grann's article, "Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?" is set for publication Sept. 7. Already, it is generating comment, such as this excellent op-ed in the New York Times by columnist Bob Herbert:
It was inevitable that some case in which a clearly innocent person had been put to death would come to light. It was far from inevitable that this case would be the one. "I was extremely skeptical in the beginning," said the New Yorker reporter, David Grann, who began investigating the case last December.
As I blogged about last year, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 when Texas' governor ignored a report calling into question the scientific evidence underlying his conviction.

"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire," wrote renowned arson expert Gerald Hurst in that report. "It was just a fire."

Now, a report commissioned by Texas to investigate mishandling of forensic evidence is "devastating” to the prosecution's theory, writes Herbert. According to scientist Craig Beyler, the determination of arson had absolutely no scientific basis. In his scathing report, Beyler equated the fire marshall's approach to that of "mystics or psychics."

Unfortunately, it's all a bit too late for Willingham. After hearing from a jailhouse snitch and others, a jury deliberated only an hour before convicting him. As Herbert wrote, Willingham "insisted until his last painful breath that he was innocent," refusing a plea bargain that would have spared his life.

Click on the image below to see a 4-minute video narrated by Grann, featuring footage shot by fire investigators and discussing flaws in the original investigation.

Click on this image to see video footage of the arson investigation

Further resources:

Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast has extensive coverage of the case.


love said...

Hi, I never knew about this part. I stumbled upon the site while doing some research. This is shocking and a ludicrous approach to solving a case. I hope the authorities can be more careful with evidence in future. Great to see that you brought this issue out.

Anonymous said...

great post