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terrible consequences . . . the execution of an innocent man
August 4, 2014 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Fresh doubts over Cameron Todd Willingham's execution (Previously) For more than 20 years, the prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of murdering his three young daughters has insisted that the authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of the jailhouse informer who told jurors that Willingham confessed the crime to him. Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed. But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.
posted by daHIFI (143 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by jeanmari at 5:58 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


The first time I heard about this story I almost burst out crying. I had (well, still have) a young son and the idea of both losing him and then being accused/imprisoned for his death was literally the most deserving of despair thing I'd ever heard of.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:05 AM on August 4 [9 favorites]


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posted by GrammarMoses at 6:06 AM on August 4


It is long past clear that the state cannot be trusted with the judicial power to kill.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:17 AM on August 4 [55 favorites]


The fact that there is even doubt is what makes this a horrendous story. I'm not in favor of capital punishment at all, but in a way, this could be seen as a good thing. If, as a society, we've decided that we're going to be monsters, then there should be a price to pay. The occasional death of an innocent person seems about right. Seriously, if we're fine with a human being injecting another human being 15 times with a substance intended to kill him in one shot, if we're fine with executions taking hours, then we really should be ok with the machinery occasionally eating a random person or three.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:21 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


In a truly just, caring society, any prosecutor who breaks the law to have an innocent man executed would themselves be put to death.
posted by Flashman at 6:22 AM on August 4 [16 favorites]


When you think about it there's this whole machine of ruin around this case - someone decides they can lean on an already-immiserated rape-victim petty criminal to get him to inform, which then destroys him; apparently various prison personnel knew this was all bullshit but had to go along with it; and then there's that slug Pearce, intervening with his money and his time just because it seems like an interesting way to fill an empty, wealthy life.

Another reason to stop executions - and in fact, to wind down and end the prison system as it is today - is because it compels people and indeed whole towns into the service of a vile and corrupt system.

Maybe Johnny Webb could have gotten his life together. Maybe in some other universe he's a happy man with a family instead of a broken man who can barely stay out of jail. But because someone needed an informant so they could kill an innocent man, he got caught up in the teeth of the machine.
posted by Frowner at 6:26 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


Fresh doubts? How is that necessary?

No sane person would look at the evidence (as it stands today) and decide that Willingham was guilty. His trial was a gratuitious miscarriage of justice, and the only remaining questions revolve around how the hell it was possible for such a poorly-conducted trial to lead to the death penalty.
posted by schmod at 6:27 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


In a truly just, caring society, any prosecutor who breaks the law to have an innocent man executed would themselves be put to death.

As long as we insist on having the death penalty, deliberately using the legal system to commit murder seems like a pretty obvious capital offense, right?
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:32 AM on August 4 [14 favorites]


The death penalty is barbaric and countries that still have the death penalty are barbaric.
posted by Pendragon at 6:34 AM on August 4 [13 favorites]


How does the prosecutor sleep at night.
posted by rtha at 6:38 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


There have got to be felony criminal penalties for prosecutorial mis-conduct. Not that I'd want the prosecutor in this case put to death, because I am totally anti-death penalty, but he surely had this man murdered.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:44 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


You can fix wrongful imprisonment. But you can't fix dead.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 6:45 AM on August 4 [9 favorites]


Egregious results like this are, imho, another utterly predictable outcome of using the the wrong metric to judge an employee's performance. Prosecutors are evaluated on successful convictions. Eliminate the need to chalk-up wins above anything else, and you will go far in eliminating this sort of evil distortion of justice.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:50 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, "whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection," and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.

John Adams
posted by Freen at 6:58 AM on August 4 [46 favorites]


Also previously: "Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?" (New Yorker, 2009). I found this article even more persuasive than today's.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:01 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


If prosecutors willfully break the law to help ensure sending defendants to their death, are they not serial killers?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:02 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Flashman: In a truly just, caring society, any prosecutor who breaks the law to have an innocent man executed would themselves be put to death.

An eye for an eye would leave the world blind (because it never stops at 1 for 1).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:05 AM on August 4


In a truly just, caring society, any prosecutor who breaks the law to have an innocent man executed would themselves be put to death.

No, because a truly just, caring society wouldn't have the death penalty in the first place.
posted by goatdog at 7:05 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]


Sadly 60% of Americans still support the death penalty.
posted by octothorpe at 7:05 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


What was Charles S. Pearce Jr.'s interest in all this, beyond trying to help out Webb?
posted by filthy light thief at 7:18 AM on August 4


octothorpe: Sadly 60% of Americans still support the death penalty.

And that's a recent low, but not as low as 1967, when it reached an all-time low in the US of 42% support, and there seemed to be serious consideration with abolishing the death penalty all together. Unfortunately, instead of being abolished, new laws were put in place to be compliant with Furman v. Georgia after 1976.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:24 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


It should be noted that in places where the death penalty is abolished most people still support the death penalty. By and large the death penalty was not abolished due to popular pressure, it was due to sheer political will by politicians.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:34 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


It amazes me that so many serious cases seem to rely on the evidence of prison snitches. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law produced a very interesting Report on the snitch system in 2005, where they said that at that time, 45% of wrongful capital conviction cases had relied on the evidence of snitches. The report makes grim reading, and I doubt if much has changed in the last ten years.
posted by Azara at 7:36 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


The Prosecutor, John H. Jackson, needs to be called WAY out on this! In addition, if the manipulations suggested in the article are shown to have merit, Jackson should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law along with any other person who was complicit. This includes ANY higher elected office official who ignored clear evidence that could have resulted in at least a temporary stay in this man's execution until the full truth was revealed.

It's one thing to die - to know you're going to die via execution at a set time and place, but to know that you didn't do the crime that you are being executed for adds an unspeakable level of hell and barbarity.
posted by Vibrissae at 7:46 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


That quote from Scalia on the Kansas death penalty decision is a frightening reminder of what a horrible, horrible excuse for a human being he is. That he has so much power in the Supreme Court should worry every American, regardless of their politics.
posted by tommasz at 7:46 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


It should be noted that in places where the death penalty is abolished most people still support the death penalty. By and large the death penalty was not abolished due to popular pressure, it was due to sheer political will by politicians.

This is absolute bullshit. Australia abolished in '85 and reinstating stands at less than a quarter of the population. We continue to campaign for its abolishment in South East Asia.
posted by Talez at 7:56 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Out of interest in '85 what was the support level for capital punishment in Australia vs. where it would be today.

Like actual polling numbers. I bet support has declined. Which would be halfway congruent with what MP said.
posted by JPD at 8:06 AM on August 4


In January 2004, weeks before Willingham’s scheduled execution, his attorney filed for a reprieve. He sought 90 days to investigate an allegation that Webb had received a vehicle after he was released from prison in 1998 and indications that Webb’s testimony had been coached.

Judge Jackson opposed the stay and flatly denied once again that Webb had received any benefits in exchange for his testimony.


It's shocking that the original prosecutor was let decide such a thing after he became judge. Shouldn't he have recused himself?
posted by Thing at 8:08 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


A 2005 Bulletin poll showed that most Australians supported capital punishment. The Australian National University's 2007 Electoral Survey found that 44 per cent of people thought the death penalty should be reintroduced - 38 per cent disagreed. Australia may not have the death penalty, but a sizeable part of the population supports its return.


posted by JPD at 8:08 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


The prosecutor did act wrongly in this case, but that doesn't mean that Willingham was innocent. If nothing else, isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge? If what the neighbor said was true about him moving his car instead of trying to rescue his children, that seems pretty criminal to me.
posted by corb at 8:09 AM on August 4


According to the 2004 Australian Election Study 51 per cent of Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty for murder. That is down from nearly 68 per cent in 1993 and 66.3 per cent in 1996. So support for the death penalty has eroded during the Howard era. Nonetheless a majority of Australians apparently still support capital punishment.
posted by JPD at 8:09 AM on August 4


We advance an elite leadership hypothesis; according to this argument, when political elites abolished capital punishment in the past, it was not in response to pressure from public opinion, but in spite of it. The act of abolition then shifted public opinion away from support for capital punishment. This important hypothesis, originally proposed by Zimring and Hawkins (1986), is supported by the Australian data, although the effect is much weaker than they proposed.
posted by JPD at 8:13 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Judge Jackson opposed the stay and flatly denied once again that Webb had received any benefits in exchange for his testimony.

It's shocking that the original prosecutor was let decide such a thing after he became judge. Shouldn't he have recused himself?


My reading was that Jackson was opposing the stay in his capacity as former prosecutor, not that he was ruling on it. They called him Judge in the story because it was his title at the time.
posted by Etrigan at 8:13 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


If nothing else, isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge?


Well, we won't ever know that now, because he's fucking dead.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:14 AM on August 4 [13 favorites]


The prosecutor did act wrongly in this case, but that doesn't mean that Willingham was innocent. If nothing else, isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge? If what the neighbor said was true about him moving his car instead of trying to rescue his children, that seems pretty criminal to me.

No, I don't think you can be charged for murder just because you run out of a burning building and choose not to run back in. But there may be a law against "acting icky" or "not doing what I would have done." I'll check the books.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:17 AM on August 4 [21 favorites]


The prosecutor did act wrongly in this case, but that doesn't mean that Willingham was innocent. If nothing else, isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge? If what the neighbor said was true about him moving his car instead of trying to rescue his children, that seems pretty criminal to me.

I suggest you read Trial by Fire, which explores these questions and many others in great detail. I think it's also important to remember that waking up from a nap to your house ablaze and filled with smoke so thick you can't fight your way through it to reach your beloved children may result in confusion and strange-seeming behavior.

The question is also not whether Willingham was innocent (which will never be 100% proven due to the nature of the events), but whether he should have been charged at all, been charged with a capital crime, been convicted of that crime, been sentenced to death, and been executed. It is very difficult to learn fully about the case and still think the answer to any of those questions is "yes." Focusing on "but did he move his car...that seems weird" in the face of all the knowledge we now have at our disposal is a little bit missing the forest for the trees.
posted by sallybrown at 8:18 AM on August 4 [21 favorites]


isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge?

In America? We'd all be guilty so many times over!
posted by srboisvert at 8:19 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


If what the neighbor said was true about him moving his car instead of trying to rescue his children, that seems pretty criminal to me.

Death-penalty level criminal?

Besides, it doesn't matter now. The state killed him.
posted by rtha at 8:20 AM on August 4


Out of interest in '85 what was the support level for capital punishment in Australia vs. where it would be today.

Like actual polling numbers. I bet support has declined. Which would be halfway congruent with what MP said.


Our Changing Views on the Death Penalty.

It was barely in favour in '85, resurged during the barbaric Howard years then fell off completely. Reinstituting is not even on the radar of conservatives back home.
posted by Talez at 8:26 AM on August 4


the other polls are less cut and dried than that one.
posted by JPD at 8:32 AM on August 4


My reading was that Jackson was opposing the stay in his capacity as former prosecutor, not that he was ruling on it. They called him Judge in the story because it was his title at the time.

That would be better, and I certainly hope it is true. Thanks for clearing it up.
posted by Thing at 8:36 AM on August 4


Prosecutors are evaluated on successful convictions. Eliminate the need to chalk-up wins above anything else, and you will go far in eliminating this sort of evil distortion of justice.

That would totally invalidate the entire Justice System as it exists, which is as an "adversary" competition between the Prosecution and the Defense. Which, after my personal experience as a juror 20 years ago that included a surprisingly frank 'chat' between the Prosecutor and a few of us jurors after it was all over, doesn't seem like a bad idea.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:40 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


"Trial by Fire" should be taught in every American classroom at the time students learn how the judicial system "works." I consider it one of the most important works of U.S. journalism of this century so far, and someday when we finally abolish the death penalty here, Cameron Todd Willingham and David Grann should share the credit. The way Grann first builds the case against Willingham and then tears it down piece by piece, slowly stripping away the reader's faith in arson "science" and the legal system until we realize how flimsy the evidence actually is...it's just masterful.
posted by sallybrown at 8:41 AM on August 4 [11 favorites]


"Trial by Fire" should be taught in every American classroom at the time students learn how the judicial system "works."

I can already see the Fox News headlines and Megyn Kelly bitching about it.
posted by Talez at 8:43 AM on August 4


So win-win is what you're saying, Talez?

Also how is there no kind of justice delivered to proesuctors who full-on know the person they've charged with, and are going to have killed if successful, is simply not guilty of the crimes charged? Seriously, how?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:46 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


The prosecutor did act wrongly in this case, but that doesn't mean that Willingham was innocent. If nothing else, isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge? If what the neighbor said was true about him moving his car instead of trying to rescue his children, that seems pretty criminal to me.

Leaving aside personal subjectivity, how much of that survives the test of reasonable doubt? Criminal trials aren't about proving innocence, but about proving guilt, and there's plenty of room to say that a man waking up in a bad fire is probably not unreasonable if he doesn't run back into it due to trauma, confusion, or simple fear. I'm not sure legislating a duty for parents to risk life and limb in actions of questionable efficacy will work out all that well. (How many people running back into a house fire will save someone else, and how many will just die horribly?)

As with so much death penalty discussion, this often comes back to two linked fantasies: the mastery of violence, and the"just world" hypothesis. In the latter, there's astrong temptation to assume anyone in Willingham's situation must have done something negligent, wrongful, or malicious because the alternative is acknowledging that a terrible tragedy might strike *us* and that *we* won't be at our heroic, absolute best when it does.

In the former, there's the similar idea that violence can be tamed and made the servant of pure good, so that no good person can ever be its victim again. The truth of shared human vulnerability is part of what both fantasies militate against, and in their denial the fantasists blame victims and celebrate the continuation of unjust violence.
posted by kewb at 8:47 AM on August 4 [21 favorites]


The prosecutor did act wrongly in this case, but that doesn't mean that Willingham was innocent. If nothing else, isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge? If what the neighbor said was true about him moving his car instead of trying to rescue his children, that seems pretty criminal to me.

This so very much reeks of, "If he was convicted, he must be guilty of something." If you read the article, he was hysterical and trying to get the car away from the house, lest it explode.
posted by xingcat at 9:00 AM on August 4 [16 favorites]


Also how is there no kind of justice delivered to proesuctors who full-on know the person they've charged with, and are going to have killed if successful, is simply not guilty of the crimes charged? Seriously, how?

I'd bet that Jackson truly believed he had the killer and that the absence of evidence wasn't going to stop him from putting the killer to death. Which is to say, I think he's probably a dangerous and illogical fanatic who did something evil as opposed to being an evil person who did something evil.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:03 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, daHIFI.

The Innocence Project is also an excellent resource for background on the case, including news coverage, key documents, etc.

The death penalty is a relic of the dark ages, as are all attempts to justify the execution of an innocent person (or insist that he wasn't really innocent "enough").
posted by scody at 9:11 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


I'd bet that Jackson truly believed he had the killer and that the absence of evidence wasn't going to stop him from putting the killer to death. Which is to say, I think he's probably a dangerous and illogical fanatic who did something evil as opposed to being an evil person who did something evil.

I believe it's this, with his later behavior attributable to "oh shit, I better save my hide on this one!"
posted by sallybrown at 9:12 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Still, "dangerous and illogical' also probably characterizes 90% of the people who are unlucky enough to be executed in the US, rather than "evil".
posted by Flashman at 9:19 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


the other polls are less cut and dried than that one.

It's like poll responses are sensitive to the wording of the question being asked.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:47 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


You're welcome scody. I vividly remember the original post from 2012 and knew I had to post this when I saw it come up on the news this morning.
posted by daHIFI at 9:47 AM on August 4


In this situation, there's no functional difference between an evil person and a "dangerous and illogical fanatic". I don't even think there's any difference. The number of "evil" people who do whatever they do Just For the Evulz is vanishingly small. Why would you want to make such a distinction?

Thinking in terms of evil people is probably a good way to get into cases like this. After all, it's the evil people you want to execute, right? Next thing you know, you're cutting corners to do that.

Come to think of it, maybe dividing the world into "dangerous and illogical fanatics" and "the rest of us" is almost as dangerous as dividing it into "good people" and "evil people". Are you sure that fanaticism is intrinsic and not caused by circumstances? Does it have to be something you "are" or "aren't" at any time? How hard is it to convert a "normal person" into a "fanatic" or vice versa?

It seems like a lot of people who get power act like fanatics. Maybe power makes them that way. Maybe they seek power because they're already that way. Personally I suspect that part of the problem is that people who seek or get that kind of power really, really want to "fix things", and they lose it and start doing crazy stuff when they find out that some things can't be fixed.

And almost everybody will stick to an opinion or course of action, once arrived at, long after they should have abandoned it. We're not perfect optimizing machines.

This kind of misbehavior may be one of the things that can't be fixed. Changing the system to take away a lot of the power might help. So might creating an atmosphere that doesn't see Punishing the Guilty (TM) as the top priority all the time. Adding another punishee seems less likely to help, especially without other reforms.
posted by Hizonner at 9:52 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


The prosecutor did act wrongly in this case, but that doesn't mean that Willingham was innocent. If nothing else, isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge? If what the neighbor said was true about him moving his car instead of trying to rescue his children, that seems pretty criminal to me.

There's a New Yorker article about this case that you probably should have read before you posted that comment here, because it might have prevented you from looking like the kind of person that fervently believes a convicted person must be guilty of something, if we just pick apart their behavior enough.
posted by palomar at 10:42 AM on August 4 [9 favorites]


It's like poll responses are sensitive to the wording of the question being asked.

This is of course completely true. However the fact remains that even in countries that have (rightly) abolished the death penalty as barbaric there remains a far too sizeable group that remains in favor of capital punishment.

The US doesn't have capital punishment or lack of gun control because we're all savages compared to the rest of the world, its that there hasn't been a principled majority in House of Reps since like 1968.
posted by JPD at 10:47 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


isn't there some sort of "murder by negligence" charge?

I'd have a hard time voting "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" for anything if I knew the prosecution was suborning perjury.

But it doesn't surprise me to see prosecutors act like this when there is absolutely no consequence for it.
posted by tyllwin at 10:56 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


I think, Hizonner, that we're of the same opinion. A person doesn't have to be Mephiston to perpetrate horrors it requires detached idiocy and a position of power. I wasn't trying to move the evil-ball towards the evil-personified goal but rather point out that the quarterback with the evil-ball playing for Team Evil is just a person, whatever feedback loops or general lack of intelligence is keeping him from adjusting course aside.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:01 AM on August 4


I don't think I've written a more tortured paragraph. Oops.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:02 AM on August 4


"Prosecutors in Dallas have said for years: 'Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.'"
posted by scody at 11:05 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Even a mediocre prosecutor can convict an innocent man. Sometimes they do it without even trying.
posted by Hizonner at 11:19 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


"Prosecutors in Dallas have said for years: 'Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.'"

Only if they do it without cheating.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:29 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Which, after my personal experience as a juror 20 years ago that included a surprisingly frank 'chat' between the Prosecutor and a few of us jurors after it was all over, doesn't seem like a bad idea.

I'm curious, what did the prosecutor say during that chat?
posted by compartment at 11:43 AM on August 4


In the latter, there's astrong temptation to assume anyone in Willingham's situation must have done something negligent, wrongful, or malicious because the alternative is acknowledging that a terrible tragedy might strike *us* and that *we* won't be at our heroic, absolute best when it does.

It's not just world, for me. I think, as a mother, I'm just kind of horrified and bewildered. Why would you even try to save yourself rather than your children? What would you even be saving? How could you possibly live with yourself, knowing that you let your children die? For me, that life would be worse than death. Even if you knew the chance was slim, even if you knew you were probably-possibly likely to die, I just fundamentally cannot grok what makes you set a foot out that door without at least one of your kids in your arms. It's not heroism, it's...what the fuck is the point otherwise? Heroism is saving someone else's kids.

But then again, I've also been reminded that I spent nearly ten years running towards danger as a soldier and volunteer medic. So it's totally possible that in an untrained scenario, rising out of a sound sleep, without that training, it might be more difficult.
posted by corb at 11:44 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


The prosecutor did act wrongly in this case, but that doesn't mean that Willingham was innocent.

It would be difficult to accept his innocence if one were a vociferous supporter of the death penalty. In any event, the burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt, using the standards of the court. They failed.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:46 AM on August 4


So it's totally possible that in an untrained scenario, rising out of a sound sleep, without that training, it might be more difficult.

I strongly suggest you keep thinking about this, deeply. Your expectations about how you would react to an emergency situation are not the moral or legal standards by which all human beings are required to act.
posted by scody at 11:57 AM on August 4 [22 favorites]


Why would you even try to save yourself rather than your children?

From this article:

He said the house was filled with smoke and when he crawled out of his bedroom toward the three girls’ bedroom, he saw an orange glow on the ceiling. When he rose up to step over a childproof gate, his hair caught fire. He said he felt around for the girls but could not find them. When debris fell from the ceiling, he stumbled out the front door. He said he tried to go back in but could not because of the intense heat. He said he called for neighbors to call the Fire Department because, “My babies is in there and I can’t get them out.”


You talk like he just galloped out of the house and OH WELL. He didn't. And, really, read the New Yorker article linked upthread. And then think about if you really want to live in a world where there's a death penalty for "negligence."
posted by rtha at 12:01 PM on August 4 [26 favorites]


I mean, shit, we can't even apply the death penalty we have "correctly." Adding crimes to it is going in exactly the wrong direction.
posted by rtha at 12:02 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


It's not just world, for me. I think, as a mother, I'm just kind of horrified and bewildered. Why would you even try to save yourself rather than your children? What would you even be saving? How could you possibly live with yourself, knowing that you let your children die? For me, that life would be worse than death. Even if you knew the chance was slim, even if you knew you were probably-possibly likely to die, I just fundamentally cannot grok what makes you set a foot out that door without at least one of your kids in your arms. It's not heroism, it's...what the fuck is the point otherwise? Heroism is saving someone else's kids.

These are fine standards to have, as long as you keep them as standards for your own life and no one else's. Personally, I find your standards to be wildly out of keeping with human nature, and if I thought you were actually trying to apply your standards to people who are not you, and finding them lacking as people because they're not measuring up to this very strict, draconian, unrealistic standard, I would be appalled at you and wonder how on earth you sleep at night, holding people who have suffered unimaginable tragedy with such contempt.

So again, great standard to have for yourself. Please keep it to just yourself.
posted by palomar at 12:20 PM on August 4 [10 favorites]


But then again, I've also been reminded that I spent nearly ten years running towards danger as a soldier and volunteer medic. So it's totally possible that in an untrained scenario, rising out of a sound sleep, without that training, it might be more difficult.

I really, really hope this isn't an attitude that all former soldiers have toward people who haven't had the same training as them. It seems a pretty cold and heartless stance.
posted by palomar at 12:22 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


Once a month round up everyone who wants to keep the death penalty despite killing the innocent. Draw lots. The person with the short straw is potentially executed. If the person declines to be executed the death penalty is forever abolished from society. If they let the state murder them then it continues for another month.

The problem will solve itself in a month.
posted by Talez at 1:03 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


I've been sickened by this case ever since I first heard about it in a Texas Monthly article some time ago. So now there's actual manipulation of witnesses, on top of the refusal of governor Perry to accept that a mistake may have been made. I hope they all burn in hell for this.

I don't understand why those in the criminal justice system, along with those who are responsible for it, insist on doing their damnedest to make sure everyone looses complete faith in the system.
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:11 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


LizBoBiz, I think it's because they have a cargo-cult mentality. As long as it looks like justice is being done, therefore it is being done and we can all go to sleep safe and sound in our beds.

Either that or it's about them getting to say eventually "The system is totally broken" and replace it with something even more arbitrary and draconian.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:17 PM on August 4


I've never understood why the same people who don't believe the government can competently do ANYTHING... somehow still believe in government's ability to convict and kill the right people. For real. You don't trust the government to manage your health care or maintain your second amendment rights, but you trust them to kill for you?
posted by palomar at 1:26 PM on August 4 [19 favorites]


I don't understand why those in the criminal justice system, along with those who are responsible for it, insist on doing their damnedest to make sure everyone looses complete faith in the system.

Is that the case? I suspect those in the Texas justice system are doing exactly what the majority of Texans want done.

I'm not in favor of capital punishment, for the record. One of the arguments in favor of it is that it is a deterrent, even if you execute the wrong person now and then, isn't it still a deterrent? In fact if you buy in to that theory, it might even be more of a deterrent that way. Plus, it's not crystal clear that the guy was innocent, he may have been both guilty and framed.

I'm not going to slander the entire state of Texas here, but they weren't exactly outraged when it was a "jailhouse informer" that provided the testimony (are you kidding?) It looks to me like all of the interest here is from the outside looking in. All you really need in that environment is someone the community dislikes and finds far enough from the norm that it doesn't matter if they did the crime or not. You can have an execution and "deter" future crimes, until another prosecutor needs to get re-elected or something..
posted by Nelson69 at 1:32 PM on August 4


somehow still believe in government's ability to convict and kill the right people

I think it's basically racism. No healthcare because PoC might get it; justice system is fine because it disproportionately punishes PoC, etc.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:36 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


I think, as a mother, I'm just kind of horrified and bewildered. Why would you even try to save yourself rather than your children?

That reaction of horror and bewilderment is, I think, completely understandable. It's a natural reaction that any good prosecutor will try to exploit. But the failure to burn oneself alive is not evidence of wrongdoing. And yet a jury's revulsion at such behavior can factor into their decision to find a defendant guilty.

Now add prosecutorial misconduct and deeply flawed interpretations of forensic evidence. Consider that public spending on indigent defense is a fraction of public spending on prosecutors' offices. In Plumas County, California, for example, indigent defense is funded at a level almost forty percent lower than the county fair.

There are many reasons why an innocent person might be convicted of a crime they did not commit. We can take steps to address issues like inadequate counsel. But the issue of our basic human nature — including our ability to misapprehend human behavior under horrible circumstances — will always persist.

DNA evidence has exonerated 18 people who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. In many cases, including that of Cameron Willingham, DNA evidence is not available or cannot be used to establish guilt or innocence. DNA evidence was not available at the time those 18 defendants were convicted. Do you believe that the states have achieved a perfect track record in all other capital cases without available or useful DNA evidence? If so, why? If not, do you agree that makes it probable that innocent people will be executed?

The just exercise of democratic self-governance requires that we strive to enforce our laws in a fair and impartial manner. We must do so to the best of our abilities, even though it is impossible to do so perfectly.

In what manner do you think the criminal justice system functions more perfectly? One in which a relatively large number of horrible people and a relatively small number of innocent people are killed by the state? Or one in which innocent lives are spared by choosing not to execute horrible people?
posted by compartment at 1:42 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]


"whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection," and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.

John Adams


#lol - Scalia
posted by ryoshu at 2:53 PM on August 4


One of the arguments in favor of it is that it is a deterrent, even if you execute the wrong person now and then, isn't it still a deterrent? In fact if you buy in to that theory, it might even be more of a deterrent that way.

"Wow, I better not commit a major crime, or I'll be executed" - does this thought really make sense when you may be executed even if innocent of a major crime?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:16 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


The deterrence argument is totally false. The vast majority of criminologists (88%) have concluded that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Moreover, the states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without it, which is the exact opposite of what the deterrence argument implies. More about the falsity of the deterrence argument here.
posted by scody at 3:27 PM on August 4 [12 favorites]


The other side of the coin, once you crossed that line, once you did a capital crime, you have nothing to lose. So you shot the store clerk? Fuck, that's bad. Shoot the customers too because can't leave a witness! Cops coming to arrest me? Shoot them! Seems to me that capital punishment is an incentive to murder at some point.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:32 PM on August 4 [10 favorites]


Indeed.. might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:53 PM on August 4


I mean the sensical thought there is really Wow I should remove myself from the reach of this Hell Justice as soon as possible
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:02 PM on August 4


I'm pretty ambivalent about the death penalty, but don't think this is the case that exposes its flaws. There was a lot of other evidence beyond the faulty arson evidence. Unfortunately, finding websites that dispassionately relate the evidence is hard to do, given the vitriol on both sides. I encourage folks to do their homework before presuming Willingham was anything but guilty for killing his children. I know everyone wants their proof that the death penalty has killed innocents, but the problem with the death penalty has nothing to do with the innocence or guilt of the accused.
posted by learnsome at 6:04 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


There's "lots" of other evidence? But you cannot link to one single website that "dispassionately" discusses that evidence? How very interesting. How do you expect people to "do their homework" if you can't provide any information beyond vague handwavey "you don't know all the facts" nonsense?
posted by palomar at 6:20 PM on August 4 [12 favorites]


"Prosecutors in Dallas have said for years: 'Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.'"

That is like, Phoenix Wright prosecutor levels of evil.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:25 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


How do you expect people to "do their homework" if you can't provide any information beyond vague handwavey "you don't know all the facts" nonsense?

Unfortunately, this isn't like the Mumia Abu Jamal case where the cop's widow has put all of the evidence in one place. Wish I had the time to collect what I've found by reading the source documents.

And, as for your snark, my response is "same way I did". By not assuming that everything I read is right, just because it confirms my priors.
posted by learnsome at 6:25 PM on August 4


Oh, get over yourself. You don't have to collect all the evidence -- any evidence would at least be part of a conversation instead of the lecture you seem to prefer giving us.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:27 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


Are those the same source documents that are available through the Innocence Project? Because scody already linked to those in this thread.

Sorry, but whenever I hear this bland yet snide "don't assume everything you read is right, sorry I can't link you to the things I know, you'll just have to find it for yourself like I did" business, the person delivering it can never, ever back it up. So you'll have to excuse me for not buying it. If you had any actual knowledge, you'd be able to back it up. You can't, so that tells me all I need to about the weight of your words.
posted by palomar at 6:30 PM on August 4 [10 favorites]


Are those the same source documents that are available through the Innocence Project? Because scody already linked to those in this thread.

Unfortunately, no. The Innocence Project only provides one side of the story. Did you happen to click that link? If you had, you would have learned that it doesn't contain all of the relevant court documents, among other things.

Look, you can jump all over me, if you'd like. I'm just pointing out that this thread is pretty one-sided. This troubling case made me look for more. Why not you?
posted by learnsome at 6:36 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


And I'm pointing out, again, that if you're going to come into a thread that you think is one-sided and state that there's lots of evidence out there that proves this thread is wrong, be prepared to provide even a tiny hint of that evidence. Ah, but you can't: you've already stated that the evidence is almost impossible to find on the internet (at least, not "dispassionate" evidence). And you're unwilling to say anything else about this mysterious "lots of evidence" that you apparently have had non-internet access to... you just think people should find it, the same way you did, and educate themselves.

So that would lead one to believe that you're making it up. So prove me wrong. I dare you.
posted by palomar at 6:42 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]


So that would lead one to believe that you're making it up. So prove me wrong. I dare you.

Are you serious? You really accuse people like this? After you demonstrate that you haven't looked at the evidence yourself?

Look, with all due respect, I'm not in high school. The Willingham case has long troubled me, troubled me to the point of actually looking up the evidence. Even though I now believe that he's guilty, I am happy that the Texas criminal justice system is being held up to the microscope. It deserves nothing less. But you feel like it's OK to trash my integrity, because I'm not willing to be the one to collect the evidence.

Feel free to comment away, but I'm going to sit your snark out.
posted by learnsome at 6:50 PM on August 4


I can think of few things more arrogant than entering a conversation by saying that you alone have done your research the correct way, refusing to cite any of said research, and then triumphantly declaring the consensus of the thread flawed simply because it's a consensus.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:50 PM on August 4 [16 favorites]


because I'm not willing to be the one to collect the evidence.

You don't have to collect it; you merely have to share it.

In the absence of sharing the evidence that you contend proves his guilt, your opinion cannot be treated with any seriousness.
posted by scody at 6:56 PM on August 4 [16 favorites]


Are you serious? You really accuse people like this? After you demonstrate that you haven't looked at the evidence yourself?

You have not given even one concrete example, though (even without citation), or specified where you found this evidence (a docket? some other resource?). You are asking us to believe the generic assertions of one unknown person over detailed research from a number of highly respected organizations who themselves have assembled and described the facts and cited their sources.
posted by sallybrown at 7:01 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


Hmm. A Google search for "Cameron Todd Willingham is guilty" didn't turn up anything that I could call "dispassionate", to borrow a term. Neither did "Cameron Todd Willingham evidence of guilt".

Well, I mean, plenty of stuff turned up for that last search. All of it pretty dispassionate... oh, but it supports all the findings of various experts and commissions over the past decade, which state that this was a wrongful conviction. I guess that's not the evidence you meant.

So... if I can't find the evidence you claim exists, how can I learn the real facts for myself? If you want people to learn those facts, why won't you share the evidence? No one's asking you to compile it, to synthesize it, to do anything but provide a link. One solitary link. Is that something that is possible? If not, why not? No bullshit, please.
posted by palomar at 7:02 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


the problem with the death penalty has nothing to do with the innocence or guilt of the accused.

Has quite a lot to do with it, actually.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:08 PM on August 4


troubled me to the point of actually looking up the evidence. Even though I now believe that he's guilty

But it's not online? You went to the courthouse, and got printouts of whatever documents were available to the public, that were presented in the trial?

The author of the New Yorker article linked upthread also seemed to have access to evidence and documents. Same ones as you, maybe? Different conclusion.

Of course, either way, this is still an excellent example of the total fucking absurdity of the death penalty - or does a corrupt prosecutor not matter, for some reason?
posted by rtha at 7:40 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


I encourage folks to do their homework before presuming Willingham was anything but guilty for killing his children.

His guilt or innocence mattered while he was alive. Now, what matters more is that impartial justice under law was or was not done. I don't think it was. Do you? A guilty man is just as entitled to fair trial as anyone else, because the crux of our justice is that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Did he get one?

Similarly, you can have a principled position in favor of a death penalty. But a principled supporter of a death penalty cares a great deal about not killing innocent people. No principled death penalty supporter wants to kill people where there's doubt if they're guilty.

I honestly think a lot of these not-quite-so-principled supporters have deep issues from their childhood where they have horribly internalized "Daddy's punishment is always good." A good justice system is one where many people are punished harshly.
posted by tyllwin at 7:43 PM on August 4


So, here's a link that collects some of what I've read from the other side of the Willingham controversy. It's not dispassionate, but it points out some serious flaws in Beyler's report, flaws that have been confirmed by the Dallas Morning News' reporting.

http://static.cnhi.zope.net/corsicanadailysun/images/City_of_Corsicana_response.pdf

BTW, I found most of the stuff online, so you can google it too. Or you can just pretend that there is no other side. Your choice.
posted by learnsome at 8:09 PM on August 4


The very first paragraph: Thank you for providing me with a copy of Dr. Craig Beyler's report on the Willingham and Willis criminal arson cases. I have not studied his findings regarding the Willis case. You have asked that the Corsicana Fire Chiefs office respond to the report and, to the extent that I am able, I will do so. However, because of my lack of firsthand knowledge of the incident, I don't believe my response will be as complete or thorough as you might want

The second paragraph: I have only recently (after we received your letter of August 31, 2009) [note: this letter was written Sept 29, 2009] attempted to review the trial transcripts and the witness statements involved in the investigation. I don't have access to Fire Marshal Vasquez's report, Assistant Chief Fogg's report, the physical evidence or the video and audio tapes.

That is a quick response that explicitly acknowledges it's a response to the report based on less than a month's time to look at it, without most of the material. It is of course written by the fire department who the expert report takes to task, which is clearly a conflict of interest and not to be trusted (as a structural matter, not because the FD is a bad actor).

It is not a good source of dispassionate analysis. It is not evidence, in the slightest. It's no different than saying "Well Willingham said he didn't do it, therefore he didn't do it".
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:28 PM on August 4 [9 favorites]


With all due respect, read the rest of it. And, BTW, it's not like the Innocence Project is dispassionate about this, but you're more than ready to accept that as gospel. Your lack of curiosity is really befuddling.
posted by learnsome at 8:39 PM on August 4


I don't need to be "curious" about the evidence when the prosecution was so corrupt. That, to me, is an automatic do not pass go, let people off death row and out of jail. But I guess that's irrelevant.
posted by rtha at 8:51 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]


it's not like the Innocence Project is dispassionate about this

In all likelihood, there are far more wrongly convicted prisoners than the Innocence Project has time to exonerate. And there are more convicts claiming innocence than there are actual innocent convicts. I don't imagine that the Innocence Project could have freed so many people without evaluating those claims and only taking on those most likely to be true.
posted by compartment at 8:53 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


I know that I've talked about this here before when we've discussed this case, but a long time ago now some of my friends' home was burned by an arsonist, who set the fire while she, her partner, and their toddler were sleeping in the night. The police decided very quickly that my friend had actually set the fire, and their evidence included:

1. My friend asking a firefighter if they had a teddy bear for her son. The fire service had been out earlier in the week in response to a death threat the family had received, and had given her son a bear, and she thought another one might help him calm down.

2. She and her partner were overhead making a dark-humored joke about "at least we won't have to worry about replacing the carpet now" as they watched their home burn.

3. My friend's partner was "too calm" when she placed the 911 call. Apparently being in control of yourself and giving the dispatcher essential information in a clear way is evidence of guilt.

4. When waiting in an interview room at the police station to give statements a couple of days later, having no idea they were suspected and being recorded without their knowledge, my friend answered her cellphone, told the caller that they were at the police station waiting to be questioned, but "we haven't cracked yet."

This case always reminds me of that, when Willingham's behavior after the fire is examined and found to be wanting. What I learned from my friends' situation is that, if someone has decided you're guilty, there is no way you can behave that they can't interpret in such a way as to further convince themselves.
posted by not that girl at 8:56 PM on August 4 [24 favorites]


Re: the McMullan rebuttal: Grits for Breakfast — Willingham debate not focused on arson science:
Ignoring portions of the rebuttal unrelated to science (and thus equally unrelated to the investigation at the Forensic Science Commission), the chief's critique of the scientific debate boils down to a complaint that "Beyler ignores the testimony of Doug Fogg, the Corsicana Fire Department investigator, regarding the pour patterns and what could have caused them, and Beyler also quotes Fogg as saying that plastic toys don't melt, and that latex paint doesn't burn off wood, which he did not say," reported the Corsicana Sun. At the end of his rebuttal, the chief goes on at length to say that the fact that the floor was on fire is evidence that arson occurred because "Fire burns up, not down."

These claims would be almost comical if they didn't come up in such a macabre setting. Those assumptions about "pour patterns" and fire on the floor are precisely among the aspects of junk forensics discredited by modern methodologies. That's the point of Beyler's testimony and the fire chief clearly doesn't know enough about the subject to engage in an on-point debate.

Mr. Fogg is not a scientist and to judge by the chief's rebuttal, even today fire officials in Corsicana don't have anyone on staff with a firm grasp of modern arson science. By comparison, Dr. Beyler has bachelors and masters degrees in fire safety engineering, a PhD in engineering from Harvard and is chairman of the International Association for Fire Safety Science. The techniques of modern fire science were mostly developed via hands-on experimentation within the last 20 years. Real-world testing debunked a specific set of non-scientific mythologies and assumptions that previously dominated arson investigation, some of which the chief still clearly clings to. But when Dr. Beyler sees testimony about "pour patterns" and fire on the floor presented to a jury as evidence of arson, with no other evidence but "eliminating" accidental causes, for him that's not even a hard call. Science just doesn't consider that good evidence anymore, even though not long ago such testimony was common, though erroneous, even when given in good faith. That's the piece of the puzzle that makes sense of these conflicting claims about fire.
...
Bottom line, the arson testimony in Todd Willingham's trial was overstated and reached definitive conclusions that a scientific understanding of fire fails to support. Nobody will ever be able to prove a negative - that Todd Willingham didn't set the fire - because evidence wasn't preserved and the investigation can't be re-done by people who know what they're doing. But it's possible now to say there was no solid forensic vidence of arson presented to the jury, which was all the Commission was investigating in the first place.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:58 PM on August 4 [11 favorites]


flaws that have been confirmed by the Dallas Morning News' reporting.

You mean the same Dallas Morning News that argued in 2011 that "there are potentially hundreds of inmates in Texas prisons whose convictions are based on outmoded science" -- i.e., the same science that McMullan attempts to defend in his rebuttal of 2009?
posted by scody at 9:31 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Your lack of curiosity is really befuddling.

For the record, I'm totally curious about why you won't present any of the evidence that convinced you.
posted by OmieWise at 5:41 AM on August 5 [4 favorites]


A letter defending discredited investigation methods is evidence that Willingham was guilty? Wow. This is pathetic.
posted by palomar at 6:08 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


If it makes anyone feel any better, Willingham was a grade A asshole who had a penchant for beating his wife, even while pregnant. That of course doesn't mean he deserved to die or that he set the fire or that a gross injustice by the states of Texas wasn't committed. But when your heart aches that this poor man murdered by the state, dull that ache with comfort that he was a shitty human being.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:43 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


But when your heart aches that this poor man murdered by the state, dull that ache with comfort that he was a shitty human being.

What a weird thing to say. My objection to the death penalty has nothing to do with how I feel about individual people and their personalities or the things they've done.
posted by OmieWise at 6:48 AM on August 5 [9 favorites]


But when your heart aches that this poor man murdered by the state, dull that ache with comfort that he was a shitty human being.

I think the point of opposition to the death penalty is that it doesn't matter if the person executed was an angel or Satan himself.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:52 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


So we should only feel bad when innocent nice people get executed?
posted by octothorpe at 6:53 AM on August 5 [4 favorites]


My heart doesn't have to ache for anyone in order for me to hate a corrupt, unethical system that we pretend is some kind of justice.
posted by rtha at 7:00 AM on August 5 [6 favorites]


So we should only feel bad when innocent nice people get executed?

Boy that is exactly what I said!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:06 AM on August 5


If it makes anyone feel any better, Willingham was a grade A asshole

Yeeeeeeeees I can fucking sleep again, thx.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:11 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


My heart doesn't ache... if anything aches, it's my sense of justice. Justice was not served. A man was convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and was executed for that crime despite information showing the evidence used to convict him was flawed. There are a lot of assholes in the world who do shitty things like hit their spouses. I don't particularly think any of them should be put to death. I don't think anyone should be put to death, that's what it means to be against the death penalty.
posted by palomar at 7:21 AM on August 5


the problem with the death penalty has nothing to do with the innocence or guilt of the accused. [This was me.]

Has quite a lot to do with it, actually.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:08 PM on August 4 [+] [!]


Later on in the thread.

I think the point of opposition to the death penalty is that it doesn't matter if the person executed was an angel or Satan himself.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:52 AM on August 5 [1 favorite +] [!]
How does the same person say both of these things? I'm jumping on this, because I had the temerity to suggest that there was other inculpatory evidence besides the faulty arson evidence, but that I hadn't found any dispassionate collections of that evidence, so do your own research. Then, after repeated queries, I posted something that I said was not dispassionate, but that it collected some of the other evidence. Instead of reading it all the way through, commenters decided that it was a better idea to misread what I wrote. And, you called me arrogant. At least, I don't speak out of both sides of my mouth.
posted by learnsome at 7:34 AM on August 5


"I'm right and I refuse to prove it" is really, really arrogant and disrespectful and nobody's taking you seriously because you are acting like a giant asshole.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:43 AM on August 5 [6 favorites]


Oh dear.

Guilt and innocence have a lot to do with opposition to execution because of the fundamental impossibility of knowing, for sure, that someone is in fact guilty. So, that has quite a lot to do with it; wrongly convicted and still alive, they can be released. But you can't fix dead.

Secondly, opposition to execution does not rest on the personality of the condemned. Which is what MisantropicPainforest was getting at.

Not talking out of both sides of my mouth in the slightest.

Also, what Pope Guilty said. You're not new around here, you know that if you say something you're going to have to back it up. "I have evidence but you have to go find it yourself" isn't something that's going to go over well here, and you probably know that. Add in that the one piece of evidence you did provide is, in fact, not evidence at all--you misinterpreted it, deliberately or not I have no idea; also you said something about 'dispassionate' and yet couldn't provide anything that was so--and you're coming across as a kneejerk contrarian rather than someone who actually has something useful to say on the subject.

Feel free to prove me wrong on that last point. I'd like to be proven wrong. Just show us where all this evidence is. That's all you have to do.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:47 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


Instead of reading it all the way through

No one is obligated to read it all the way through. Many commenters registered their objections to it, including pointing out that it was written by the FIRE DEPARTMENT itself, and that they didn't really have all the evidence nor did they spend a lot of time looking at what evidence they had.

FFS the report is 21 pages long single spaced. If you want to present some evidence do some damn excerpting.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:54 AM on August 5


For starters, here are some things you could select from the document:

"While I understand the job the Texas Forensics Science Commission has to do, I hope you
will appreciate the difficulty I had in trying to comment upon an event that happened eighteen years ago, without having access to the physical evidence, the audio and video tapes and the photographs."

Oh ok what the fuck nevermind who cares.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:56 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


learnsome: How does the same person say both of these things? I'm jumping on this, because I had the temerity to suggest that there was other inculpatory evidence besides the faulty arson evidence, but that I hadn't found any dispassionate collections of that evidence, so do your own research.

Don't you dare try to move the goalposts back with this "just trying to teach the controversy" nonsense. In subsequent comments, you went much father than saying there was other evidence, at one point saying that you now believe that he was guilty. If you're going to assert your belief that he was guilty, then it's very relevant that the only thing you've been able to produce to support this belief is an obviously self-serving letter from the Corsicana FD, which has many obvious flaws beyond the fact that the people writing it had an obvious interest in protecting their own. If you expect people to take your contributions as anything but drive-by concern trolling, you owe it to us to share what actual evidence leads you to believe he was guilty.

You've spent more than enough time here rules-lawyering that could have been spent digging up whatever evidence led you to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Willingham murdered his daughters. Trying to make everyone else do your work for you is, in my estimation, a hostile act toward the community.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:02 AM on August 5 [9 favorites]


The deterrence argument is totally false. The vast majority of criminologists (88%) have concluded that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Moreover, the states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without it, which is the exact opposite of what the deterrence argument implies. More about the falsity of the deterrence argument here.

It's not a crime deterrent, it's a deterrent from being unusual or outside the norm. I know it doesn't work but I do believe a very large majority in Texas favor it and deterrence is one of their arguments.

I can't remember a deathrow case of question where the person fit the social norms really well. If/when they execute the wrong person, it's someone that the community still didn't care for.

Why else is not the entire state of Texas up in arms about potentially killing the wrong man?
posted by Nelson69 at 8:07 AM on August 5


because I had the temerity to suggest that there was other inculpatory evidence

You didn't just suggest it, you said you'd looked it up. You insist that dispassionate (how are you defining that?) exists and at least imply that you've seen it, but you can't produce it and can't or won't even say where or what it is. If it's not online, okay - there's a ton of stuff from the murder trial I was a juror for that isn't available unless you physically go to the courthouse and fill out paperwork and pay money for copies, and there's almost certainly stuff that isn't available even that way because the conviction is being appealed.
posted by rtha at 8:08 AM on August 5


You don't trust the government to manage your health care or maintain your second amendment rights, but you trust them to kill for you?

Man, I have to say there's a certain black humour in watching how people will bend over backwards to talk about how they don't trust the government to kill shitty people on death row, while they're totally fine trusting the government to, say, kill half a million people in Iraq.
posted by corb at 8:27 AM on August 5


you can't produce it and can't or won't even say where or what it is

You know, this is kind of a shitty thing that happens a lot. We all, as relatively literate adults, read a lot over our lifetime. That doesn't mean we perfectly recall the sources for the information that has convinced us, on the spot, at the drop of a hat. This kind of "aha, you don't remember what you read five years ago GOTCHA, I bet you made it up" shit is kind of jacked up. It's fine to ask for cites, but there's really no need to double down and accuse people of acting in bad faith just because they can't find them.
posted by corb at 8:29 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


How does the same person say both of these things?

I don't know, why don't you get an audience with the Pope or the Dalai Lama and ask the how they oppose the death penalty in all cases, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the condemned?

Look, guilt or innocence is relevant in this case insofar as it illustrates the ultimate argument against the death penalty: that it kills the innocent. But there are a number of arguments against the death penalty that have nothing to do with questions of innocence: it's racist, it overwhelmingly targets the poor, it doesn't deter crime, it violates the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, it's expensive (and any attempt to cut costs by limiting appeals and hurrying up executions only increases the risk of executing the innocent). All of these things remain true even when the condemned is guilty.

Believing that Willingham was innocent and that he shouldn't have been put to death even if he were guilty (which he wasn't) doesn't require that anyone talk out both sides of their mouth; it merely requires having a principled opposition to the state deciding who lives and who dies.
posted by scody at 8:29 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


eh corb this is a person making pretty fanciful claims, saying they have the evidence, but not producing it. Its not like, they're saying ( i read this study and these were the conclusions IIRC), they're saying everyone else is full of it because they have concrete proof but they wont say where it is or what it is or anything.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:31 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


corb: Man, I have to say there's a certain black humour in watching how people will bend over backwards to talk about how they don't trust the government to kill shitty people on death row, while they're totally fine trusting the government to, say, kill half a million people in Iraq.

Could you please articulate who these people are? I see no tension between opposition to the death penalty and opposition to the Iraq War, and would be willing to wager the set of people who opposed both is enormous, while the set of people who support one and oppose the other is much smaller.

It's fine to ask for cites, but there's really no need to double down and accuse people of acting in bad faith just because they can't find them.

When they can't find them but continue to insist that they're right and everyone else is wrong, and, even worse, suggest without any evidence that the community is just a bunch of sheeple failing to think critically and do their own research, I don't think you can blame the peanut gallery for feeling slighted, and wanting some evidence for the original claims.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:33 AM on August 5 [9 favorites]


don't trust the government to kill shitty people on death row, while they're totally fine trusting the government to, say, kill half a million people in Iraq.

Oh please. I'd be willing to bet that the Venn diagram of "opponents to execution" and "proponents of the Iraq War" has a really damn tiny intersection area.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:34 AM on August 5 [9 favorites]


Man, I have to say there's a certain black humour in watching how people will bend over backwards to talk about how they don't trust the government to kill shitty people on death row, while they're totally fine trusting the government to, say, kill half a million people in Iraq.

Most the people I know aren't happy with either. This is also what is known as a false dichotomy or false equivalency. Read more here.

It's fine to ask for cites, but there's really no need to double down and accuse people of acting in bad faith just because they can't find them.

Yeah, like WMD in Iraq! (See how that false equivalency thing works?)

It's not a matter of acting in bad faith, but rather of credibility. If one side can link to facts supporting their argument, but the other side can't, then you go with the side that has facts behind them. To do otherwise makes you the loon that denies reality (and there are plenty of those).
posted by cjorgensen at 8:35 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


they're saying everyone else is full of it because they have concrete proof but they wont say where it is or what it is or anything.

Not only that, but the one example of "proof" is nothing more than a cover-your-ass letter from the fire chief that was written without access to photos or physical evidence, and which reiterates the same bad fire science that's already been disproved.

they don't trust the government to kill shitty people on death row, while they're totally fine trusting the government to, say, kill half a million people in Iraq.

Point to one person in this thread who is against the death penalty on principle and is also a defender of the war in Iraq.
posted by scody at 8:40 AM on August 5 [8 favorites]


That doesn't mean we perfectly recall the sources for the information that has convinced us, on the spot, at the drop of a hat.

People need to take some personal responsibility and either refrain from making evidence-based claims in arguments if they can't even remember the evidence, or they need to produce the evidence.
posted by rtha at 8:48 AM on August 5 [10 favorites]


This kind of "aha, you don't remember what you read five years ago GOTCHA, I bet you made it up" shit is kind of jacked up. It's fine to ask for cites, but there's really no need to double down and accuse people of acting in bad faith just because they can't find them.

Yeah, bullshit. If learnsome said they couldn't recall but provided some sort of description, that would be one thing. Saying "uh huh!" over and over again is not the same as that, and deserves to be called out as acting in bad faith.
posted by OmieWise at 8:49 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


It's not a matter of acting in bad faith, but rather of credibility. If one side can link to facts supporting their argument, but the other side can't, then you go with the side that has facts behind them.

Oh sure, that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do! But there's no reason to add taunting to it. Saying "Hey, that's an interesting point, but there's a lot of evidence on this side so I'm going to believe he's innocent" is very different from accusing someone of "concern-trolling" and making "a hostile act to the community" because they can't recall good sources. Like, maybe they even are, but if they are, hectoring about it isn't going to change anything, and if they're not, you're needlessly being a dick for no reason to a fellow Mefite.
posted by corb at 8:50 AM on August 5


You know, this is kind of a shitty thing that happens a lot. We all, as relatively literate adults, read a lot over our lifetime. That doesn't mean we perfectly recall the sources for the information that has convinced us, on the spot, at the drop of a hat. This kind of "aha, you don't remember what you read five years ago GOTCHA, I bet you made it up" shit is kind of jacked up. It's fine to ask for cites, but there's really no need to double down and accuse people of acting in bad faith just because they can't find them.

You'd maybe have a valid point, corb, if this person weren't playing a weird game where he claims to have read evidence that totally changed his viewpoint, and if we could see that evidence we'd agree, and because we won't consult the evidence we're essentially bad people arguing in bad faith... except he can't provide any evidence, can't even give an abstract outline of what it might be, and pulls the "i found it myself so you can do the same thing" b.s. when called out on it.

But then, I'm not surprised to see you defending someone who is arguing in bad faith.
posted by palomar at 8:50 AM on August 5 [10 favorites]


you're needlessly being a dick for no reason to a fellow Mefite.

You mean that part where the guy repeatedly insists that he's right and he can't prove it and everyone who fails to agree with him are hypocrites lacking sufficient intellectual curiosity? Yeah, dick move.
posted by scody at 8:56 AM on August 5 [9 favorites]


corb: Saying "Hey, that's an interesting point, but there's a lot of evidence on this side so I'm going to believe he's innocent" is very different from accusing someone of "concern-trolling" and making "a hostile act to the community" because they can't recall good sources.

As others have pointed out, this isn't merely someone who can't dig up a link or the proper Google search terms, it's someone who won't even contextualize what the other evidence was, but insisting that they are right anyway.

And, yes, this is absolutely hostile to the community at large, especially considering how learnsome entered the thread with an implication that anyone who denies that Willingham is guilty must not have done their homework the way they did. That is a flat-out attack on the critical thinking skills of everyone else, and a blind assertion that if you don't agree with them, you must not have done enough homework. Then when people ask how they can do that homework, how they can find these mysterious sources that confirm Willingham's guilt, it's WHARGLBARGL all the way down.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:00 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


This seems like a meta worthy derail if it's going to continue.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:15 AM on August 5


Point to one person in this thread who is against the death penalty on principle and is also a defender of the war in Iraq.

This might be possible, but it's also irrelevant. One could actually be a defender of one without endorsing the other. I don't see these positions as being mutually inclusive or exclusive.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:17 AM on August 5


This might be possible, but it's also irrelevant. One could actually be a defender of one without endorsing the other. I don't see these positions as being mutually inclusive or exclusive.

She's asserting that people in this thread who are against the death penalty are also supporters of the war in Iraq, and thus our position against the death penalty is hypocritical. It's a bullshit argument and I'm calling her out on it.
posted by scody at 10:45 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]


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