acting as their ghostly embodiments
August 16, 2015 10:47 PM   Subscribe

In 1988, he was convicted of killing his stepsons—based on arson science we now know is bunk. A quarter of a century later, Texas granted him a new trial. While the state has not budged in its use of the death penalty—just last year topping 500 executions since the state brought back capital punishment in 1982—it has reinvented itself as a leader in arson science and investigation. A new fire marshal, Chris Connealy, revamped the state’s training and investigative standards. He also set up a panel comprised of some of the top fire scientists in the country to reconsider old cases that had been improperly handled by the original investigators. Graf’s case was one of the first up for review, and it was determined that the original investigators had made critical mistakes.
posted by bq (44 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
good job Texas
good job America
posted by schroedinger at 11:25 PM on August 16, 2015


This guy puts the G in guilty. Some of what this article calls "circumstantial evidence" is much more than that. You're told one child died but you somehow know two did? And even the true circumstantial evidence piles up so much as to leave little doubt as to his guilt. I don't see that the fire science testimony is even needed.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 11:36 PM on August 16, 2015


I find it hard to believe that we read the same article. The first trial was based on fake "science", and the second was a farcical display of the unreliability of 28 year old memories, as well as a pathetic and comically over-detailed "jailhouse confession" to a cellmate who had a lot to gain.
posted by Steakfrites at 11:51 PM on August 16, 2015 [18 favorites]


So it came as a surprise when around 90 minutes after deliberation began, the jurors sent their first note out asking this question: “How many jurors does it take to reach a unanimous verdict?”
With a question like that, it comes as a surprise they were able to dress themselves and find their way to the courthouse that day.
posted by El Mariachi at 11:58 PM on August 16, 2015 [55 favorites]


...circumstantial evidence piles up so much as to leave little doubt as to his guilt. I don't see that the fire science testimony is even needed.

Totally. I mean, science is a huge pain in the ass, what with the thinking and the big words and the BORING. Easy breezy common sense should be the only thing admissible at trial.
posted by univac at 12:01 AM on August 17, 2015 [14 favorites]


I think this article really shows the ridiculous amount of power that we give to DA offices. The DA just kept trying new bureaucratic maneuvers (using trustee status to make the cellmate a snitch, threatening to contest every parole hearing, etc) until they finally found one that caused the defendant to cave in, regardless of their actual guilt or innocence.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 12:04 AM on August 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


Who takes out a $100,000 accidental death life insurance policy on their children?? What possible non-nefarious motive could there be for that? Who would ever dream of profiting financially from their child's death? Obviously that is far more than could be needed for funeral expenses, which is the only justification I've even heard for this type of policy. And then what are the chances that the kids die via accidental death immediately after the policy issues?
posted by Mallenroh at 12:32 AM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


The accidental death policy issue is addressed in the article. My parents had one on me, as did my college roommate's parents. They matured and paid out by the time we were in college, and they used that money to help pay for it.
posted by skybluepink at 12:55 AM on August 17, 2015 [14 favorites]


Who takes out a $100,000 accidental death life insurance policy on their children?

The article says:
Graf had his own explanation for the insurance. He claimed he had purchased it as a savings vehicle for all three of his kids. Graf had paid for his own college education using funds his parents had saved through an insurance plan. His brother and some of their family friends also claimed to have taken out insurance on their own kids, also as savings vehicles. On cross-examination, Clare Bradburn acknowledged that Graf had been talking about getting life insurance even before their youngest son was born, more than six months before the fire.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:59 AM on August 17, 2015 [10 favorites]


good job Texas

Nope. Texas not only very nearly killed an innocent man, Texas took away 25-odd years of that innocent man's life. Not good job. Bad job. Evil job.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:10 AM on August 17, 2015 [8 favorites]


Previously
posted by TedW at 2:14 AM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Texas took away 25-odd years of that innocent man's life

Yeah, but still, we can't ever know with 100% certainty whether or not he is guilty, even if it does seem highly unlikely that he is. It's not a miscarriage of justice because he's innocent, it's because the legal system failed him on a fundamental level. Even if the article had ended with a convincing and thorough confession and explanation of how he did it, his trial would still have been a complete joke and a chilling statement about the justice system.
posted by teponaztli at 2:49 AM on August 17, 2015


Approximate commentary running through my head as I read the FPP:

In 1988, he was convicted of killing his stepsons—based on arson science we now know is bunk.
Huh. I wonder if he got a retrial. Probably not, unless it was in a state known for its progressive criminal justice system.

A quarter of a century later, Texas
Nope, definitely not.

granted him a new trial.
Well I'll be damned.

While the state has not budged in its use of the death penalty—just last year topping 500 executions since the state brought back capital punishment in 1982—
Something else has to be going on here.

it has reinvented itself as a leader in arson science and investigation.
I'll bet you $20 he's white.

*clicks link*

Oh, hey, look at that.
posted by Mayor West at 4:38 AM on August 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


As was Cameron Willingham (from the previously), who did die thanks to Texas' arson "science," so in case you were wondering what it takes to spur the justice system into examining its machinery of death, well.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:51 AM on August 17, 2015 [11 favorites]


Is any forensic science real?
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:14 AM on August 17, 2015 [10 favorites]


Speaking only to the arson investigation side of the story there is still a scary amount of what basically amounts to "folk wisdom" that used to (and to a point still is) used by some investigators. For the most part the path of arson/fire investigator was "be a fire fighter for a long time" and while on the job experience is a great teaching tool it doesn't help much if its coupled with bad information from other "more experienced" investigators...who learned the same way you are.

Thanks in part to cases like these in Texas and a few others across the country fire investigation is becoming a more scientific with greater weight placed on proper investigatory practices and reproducible laboratory results. It's still not perfect, because for most of these cases there will always be a certain level of interpretation and opinion left up to the investigator but it's at least a step in the right direction.

(also for what its worth my two siblings and my self all her life insurance policies our grandparents set up for us though the credit union that we could cash out at 18 for a couple thousand dollars that helped pay for college)
posted by Captain_Science at 5:17 AM on August 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


The New Yorker did this profile of Cameron Todd Willingham back in 2009.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:29 AM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


How many jurors does it take to reach a unanimous verdict?

Let's find out! One...two...three...

*chomp*

Three.

>:(
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:03 AM on August 17, 2015 [15 favorites]


“How many jurors does it take to reach a unanimous verdict?”

With a question like that, it comes as a surprise they were able to dress themselves and find their way to the courthouse that day.


Well, it only takes one stubborn bonehead who won't accept the meaning of "unanimous" to force a question like that. So it isn't necessarily "they."


Also all the "must be guilty because" comments here are addressed in TFA. For instance, "You're told one child died but you somehow know two did?" This was after someone else mistakenly told him that both had been found alive. TFA is very long, and I skimmed some, too, but only after I decided that I wasn't going to put myself on the third jury.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:07 AM on August 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


"Circumstantial evidence" doesn't mean no evidence. A Texas Monthly story includes an additional detail:
After leaving the bank, Graf became a claims adjuster with State Farm Insurance, where he helped work on arson cases. One day in early 1986, family members would later testify, he gave a discourse about the elements of arson he had learned in his new job, how arson was among the most difficult crimes to solve because fires burned up their own evidence.
Along with the child abuse allegations, the obvious motive, the fact that he knew that both children were dead, and the uncharacteristic behavior indicating that he knew something was going to happen to the children, it sounds like a probably guilty person was set free on a technicality. Which is exactly how our justice system should work, but portraying this as a victory over "old-fashioned Texas justice", with all the brutality, bigotry, and ignorance that implies, is a pretty loaded characterization.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 6:19 AM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Here are your Caruso sunglasses. Now, off into the sunset as things blown up behind ya
posted by aydeejones at 6:24 AM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ralston, do you notice that the information Graf would've had about arson in the 80's would have been the same pernicious nonsense that the arson investigators who testified against him was?
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:32 AM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, I think the point of that was to establish that he believed that arson would be an undetectable crime. Proof of anything? No, certainly not on its own.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 6:56 AM on August 17, 2015


it sounds like a probably guilty person was set free on a technicality.

Not being able to meet your burden of proof isn't a technicality, though. Here I don't think the prosecution could show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the fire was arson rather than accidental. If you can't even prove that a crime took place, the accused going free isn't due to some technical rule, it's because you can't prove them guilty.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:23 AM on August 17, 2015 [15 favorites]


I'll bet you $20 he's white.

*clicks link*

Oh, hey, look at that.


the majority of people exonerated by the the innocence project, who were involved here, are not white.
posted by nadawi at 7:30 AM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but how many of those exonerations involved law enforcement willingly convening a task force to scrutinize past convictions?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:35 AM on August 17, 2015


i dunno - how many departments were as thoroughly embarrassed as this one was after helping the state sanctioned murder of an innocent man?
posted by nadawi at 7:37 AM on August 17, 2015


The Ferguson police department, the city of Arlington, TX, the Baltimore PD, Cleveland...
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:50 AM on August 17, 2015


i dunno - how many departments were as thoroughly embarrassed as this one was after helping the state sanctioned murder of an innocent man?

For which Perry and Abbot will never be punished.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:57 AM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


This guy puts the G in guilty.

Armchair judge and jury FTW. It works the same way in science, too. Why do we even need this complicated machinery of proofs and refutations in the first place?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:20 AM on August 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


he Ferguson police department, the city of Arlington, TX, the Baltimore PD, Cleveland...

cops killing people in the street is pretty different than an entire branch of science used to prosecute crimes being mostly bunk and having to be fixed. i get the broader points, but they don't shoehorn into this case in the way some are trying to make them.

now, this guy still being alive to be able to challenge these things is largely very much down to race because the jury would have likely given him the death penalty if he were black.
posted by nadawi at 9:56 AM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Who takes out a $100,000 accidental death life insurance policy on their children?? What possible non-nefarious motive could there be for that? Who would ever dream of profiting financially from their child's death? Obviously that is far more than could be needed for funeral expenses, which is the only justification I've even heard for this type of policy.

FWIW, I have an ad&d policy on my son because my employer offered a very very low cost ad&d insurance on my family members, and it was all or none (i.e., I couldn't just choose my spouse). I waffled because I do feel a bit queasy about life insurance on my son but it makes sense for spouses to have insurance on each other, especially with kids in the picture, so I opted in. Different circumstances than the case in question, but I thought I'd throw it out there for people wondering what different situations can lead to a parent with life insurance on their kid.
posted by JenMarie at 11:03 AM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Who takes out a $100,000 accidental death life insurance policy on their children??

Have you ever met an insurance salesman?
posted by el io at 11:09 AM on August 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


DeHaan had investigated the Ed Graf case back in 2010, and like Carpenter and Hurst had found that “if the doors were latched close … there would be insufficient ventilation to permit more than an initial flash fire.” In a report he put together for Graf’s lawyer Walter Reaves, DeHaan described how the high level of carbon monoxide inhaled by Jason and Joby would not have made sense in a set gasoline fire, which concurred with Carpenter’s findings.

Some of the comments here proving the sad conclusion of the article, which is basically that people ignore or don't understand the science and so verdicts are reached through emotions and gut feelings. The expert says the door was probably not locked and it probably wasn't a set gasoline fire, so it's not arson or murder. But who cares! He had a life insurance policy out on them and he allegedly didn't buy cereal the week before. Why it's open and shut! Christ, I hope if I'm ever on trial that the jury of my peers is made up of people who can understand the big words.
posted by billiebee at 11:47 AM on August 17, 2015 [16 favorites]


So do people believe that funerals and grave monuments and other assorted death expenses are free as long as they're for children? Is that my understanding of the "who takes out life insurance on their kids?" question?
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:50 AM on August 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


I think it's just the magnitude of the policy. 10k would be fine, 100 k is striking people as suspicious. However, buying insurance like this can be good if it can be continued after 18. People who develop disqualifing conditions in childhood can be covered this way.
posted by Mitheral at 12:59 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I read the whole(*) article. And I have a lot of conflicting thoughts.

My main point is this: While Graf certainly doesn't sound like a stellar human being, his character was not on trial(**). The state needed to convince a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he set the fire and murdered the boys.

And here we are, in the 21st century, and we're still depending on faulty memories and hearsay rather than science. Well that and which side can tell a better story.

I'm just gonna side with billibee and say, for the record, that I hope I never have a jury of my "peers" hold me to account.

Because: “If you’re going to let these 12 people that weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty determine somebody’s civil liberties—whether or not they’re going to spend the rest of their life in prison—we got to do it right.”

Emphasis mine.


* OK - I skimmed a bit of the epilogue.

** While they can't put his character on trial, per se, they still do so by constructing a story based on evidence allowed at the trial to try and sway the jury one way or another. It looks like the prosecution did an exceptional job in the second trial. Given an "guilty" verdict based on 30-yr-old memories and debunked forensic science.

That and the Judge may or may not be an asshole.
posted by wavy at 1:50 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think there is a much bigger issue at work with this story and the reactions to it. Basically most people will give service to "innocent until proven guilty" but for the most part this just isn't what happens at all. There's the inflammatory news outlets that make every person accused of a crime either righteously abused or obviously guilty. There are our own personal prejudices that snake through our perceptions without even announcing themselves obviously. There's apathy, mood swings, fatigue, boredom, free-floating rage from personal issues.

The fact that someone's fate is put into the hands of randoms who have their own whole pile of life issues holding them fast is really not ideal. Then you toss in group think in a jury room and perhaps a very bullying member combined with others who just want to get home to watch their DVRs or tuck their kids into bed and one wonders why perversion of justice happens?

One would think that eyewitness testimony would be just ignored by now as the fact that it's absolutely unreliable is well known, however...

I come from the other insane murder state (Florida) and the death penalty is my big social issue from the same impulse as the Innocence Project. People are just people, and we can't trust that objectivity even exists, therefore killing people in the name of a whole state is morally corrupt and ludicrous.

Also re: TFA you better get your house in order if you think circumstantial evidence is enough to send someone to prison for life. Your neighbor saw you with that jerry can.
posted by syncope at 1:53 PM on August 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


It took me all day, but I read TFA, and while I think there is good evidence that the testimony from Ed Graf's cellmate in county jail just weeks before his retrial was fabricated (Part 7). But maybe the scariest thing I read in the whole piece was that the fact that there was an audio recording of Ed Graf using quotes the cellmate recalled (e.g., calling the DA a "chickenshit motherfucker"), that at least one juror said, "Hearing that made me decide that his information that he gave was partially true." Like the entire relevant testimony suddenly became credible because there was a recording of Graf calling the DA a chickenshit motherfucker.
posted by joan cusack the second at 3:39 PM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Good to see the 2009 New Yorker article get linked above. But this thread needs the Frontline feature.

At the center of the national death penalty debate today is the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham, put to death for the arson-murder of his three little girls. But was he guilty?

Watch online: Death by Fire
posted by intermod at 7:41 PM on August 17, 2015


Because: “If you’re going to let these 12 people that weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty determine somebody’s civil liberties—whether or not they’re going to spend the rest of their life in prison—we got to do it right.”

You know, that's an old, amusing canard, but I know a whole bunch of really bright people that take jury duty pretty seriously, and are happy to have an opportunity to engage in their civic responsibilities.
posted by el io at 2:28 AM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes. it's tempting to take it personally when someone implies that I was not "smart enough to get out of jury duty" (three times!) I see avoiding jury duty as an extreme form of not voting in elections. Most nonvoters say (with justification) "my vote doesn't count anyway." Nobody can say that about Jury duty.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:03 AM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've been exempted from jury duty once at my request (the trial was the same day as the final exam for a graduate degree program, with no make-ups, so if I'd missed it, I'd have had to wait another semester), but I've never been interested in avoiding it.

I've served once, on an extremely unpleasant case that left me emotionally messed up for a while afterwards. Still, if called again, I still wouldn't be trying to get out of it.

This is to some extent due to privilege, since my job is such that they can let me go and serving won't affect my salary, but still, I don't think it's a matter of not being smart enough to get out of it. (Tied to that privilege, I'd say about half the jury I was on consisted of retirees, which makes a lot of sense.)
posted by Four Ds at 10:03 AM on August 18, 2015


Wow.

> "One would think that eyewitness testimony would be just ignored by now as the fact that it's absolutely unreliable is well known, however..."

Um, yeah. How the fuck are people allowed to change their testimony and add new details 25 years after the fact, especially if they were 9 years old at the time? And this, from the article:

'Sokolove’s testimony ran counter to the investigations of Gerald Hurst and Doug Carpenter, not to mention the contemporaneous eyewitness testimony of William Flake and Wilfred Wondra that the door was open. After his testimony, Sokolove told me that he had initially thought he had mentioned the locked hasp in his 1986 statement. It was only when he realized, in 2014, that the hasp lock wasn’t in his report that he reasoned that he must have been told to put down what he did, not what he witnessed, and had followed the instructions too literally.

“At this point I’ve reached the conclusion that my statement must’ve been based on the instructions to write down what I did,” he told me. “You sort of work backward and think, ‘Well why didn’t I put it in there?’ ”

In other words, he presented the reason for his limited original statement as a memory on the witness stand, but described it to me as a rationalization after the fact. Sokolove acknowledges there’s a chance he could be misremembering the state of the hasp lock, though he believes it to be very slim: “I would give it a 99.9 percent that what I saw on that shed is what I saw on that shed,” he told me.

“They’re asking me to remember what I did and what I saw almost 30 years ago. It’s a little bit of a challenge,” he added. “But that part was clear. It’s almost like there was a spotlight on the hasp lock, and I can see it, I mean it’s like, as clear as day. Everything else that was going on, you know, may be a little fuzzy, but that part for some reason sticks out in my mind, and it always has.”'


Sure, man. You don't even remember why you didn't write it down, but your memory of the lock itself must be true. I also wake up from dreaming my boyfriend and I had a fight and still feel mad at him, but that doesn't mean we actually had a fight. Or take the car accident I got into six years ago at dusk where I didn't see this other car as I was turning, so she must not have had her lights on--but I really, really can't be sure she didn't have her lights on, since I didn't see anything about the other car before I hit it! Never mind that I now have a clear picture in my mind of a gray-blue van coming at me at dusk with no lights, because that makes no sense. If I really had seen it that way I wouldn't have pulled out and hit it (at least not consciously). And if you didn't include a detail about a lock 30 years ago that contradicts what other people reported at the time it actually happened, maybe it's because you totally imagined a clear image of a hasp lock in a spotlight in the intervening three decades, because if the guy was convicted he really must have done it and humans gotta rationalize.

On that note:

'“How can a twice-convicted double child-murderer, who’s lied for that period of time, and then confessed to brutally burning my young sons alive ... how can he—how can this happen?” [the boys' mother] said. “I just feel that it was a travesty of justice to the victims and families.” (Bradburn also said that—even with the hindsight knowledge that her husband had gone free because of the plea—she would still agree to have the prosecutor’s office go through with the deal. “I don’t regret it because he confessed to the murders of my two little boys after he professed his innocence for 28 years,” she said. “Who would ever confess to murders if you didn’t do it?”)'

Who would confess to murders they didn't do? Lots of people, apparently. The criminal justice system in the United States is utterly terrifying and destroys lives, and I haven't even touched on the willful ignoring of the the actual scientific evidence that was what brought this case to a retrial in the first place.
posted by j.r at 1:30 PM on August 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


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