Tuesday, September 01, 2009

New Yorker Examines Texas' Execution of Todd Willingham - Judge Jackson's Flawd Arguments Against Willingham

In the Sept 7, 2009 edition of the New Yorker David Grann comprehensively examines the Todd Willingham case in which an innocent person was executed by Texas. The proven execution of an innocent person means the end of the death penalty in the United States. Shout this name from the rooftops, Todd Willingham. He was innocent and Texas killed him.

Governor Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had been given a report before the execution that cast doubt that the fire was arson, but they ignored it.
The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor’s office and the board pertaining to Hurst’s report. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” Barry Scheck said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”

LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the time, told me of the process, “You don’t vote guilt or innocence. You don’t retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order and there are no glaring errors.” He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, “in my time there had never been one called.” When I asked him why Hurst’s report didn’t constitute evidence of “glaring errors,” he said, “We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them.” Alvin Shaw, another board member at the time, said that the case didn’t “ring a bell,” adding, angrily, “Why would I want to talk about it?” Hurst calls the board’s actions “unconscionable.”
The magazine includes a -word story and an audio interview with the author. Listen to an audio interview.

The article examines every aspect of the case and concludes that there is no doubt that an innocent person has been executed. There is scientific evidence to prove that the fire was not arson.

One of the people Grann interviewed was Johnny Webb, the person who claimed that Willingham gave him a jailhouse confession. Webb says:
“It’s very possible I misunderstood what he said.” Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder.

“Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy,” he said. “My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that.” He paused, then said, “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”
Longer excerpt from the segment on the dubious jailhouse snitch:
After speaking to Stacy, Gilbert had one more person she wanted to interview: the jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who was incarcerated in Iowa Park, Texas. She wrote to Webb, who said that she could see him, and they met in the prison visiting room. A man in his late twenties, he had pallid skin and a closely shaved head; his eyes were jumpy, and his entire body seemed to tremble. A reporter who once met him described him to me as “nervous as a cat around rocking chairs.” Webb had begun taking drugs when he was nine years old, and had been convicted of, among other things, car theft, selling marijuana, forgery, and robbery.
As Gilbert chatted with him, she thought that he seemed paranoid. During Willingham’s trial, Webb disclosed that he had been given a diagnosis of “post-traumatic stress disorder” after he was sexually assaulted in prison, in 1988, and that he often suffered from “mental impairment.” Under cross-examination, Webb testified that he had no recollection of a robbery that he had pleaded guilty to only months earlier.

Webb repeated for her what he had said in court: he had passed by Willingham’s cell, and as they spoke through a food slot Willingham broke down and told him that he intentionally set the house on fire. Gilbert was dubious. It was hard to believe that Willingham, who had otherwise insisted on his innocence, had suddenly confessed to an inmate he barely knew. The conversation had purportedly taken place by a speaker system that allowed any of the guards to listen—an unlikely spot for an inmate to reveal a secret. What’s more, Webb alleged that Willingham had told him that Stacy had hurt one of the kids, and that the fire was set to cover up the crime. The autopsies, however, had revealed no bruises or signs of trauma on the children’s bodies.

Jailhouse informants, many of whom are seeking reduced time or special privileges, are notoriously unreliable. According to a 2004 study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions, at Northwestern University Law School, lying police and jailhouse informants are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases in the United States. At the time that Webb came forward against Willingham, he was facing charges of robbery and forgery. During Willingham’s trial, another inmate planned to testify that he had overheard Webb saying to another prisoner that he was hoping to “get time cut,” but the testimony was ruled inadmissible, because it was hearsay.

Webb, who pleaded guilty to the robbery and forgery charges, received a sentence of fifteen years. Jackson, the prosecutor, told me that he generally considered Webb “an unreliable kind of guy,” but added, “I saw no real motive for him to make a statement like this if it wasn’t true. We didn’t cut him any slack.” In 1997, five years after Willingham’s trial, Jackson urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Webb parole. “I asked them to cut him loose early,” Jackson told me. The reason, Jackson said, was that Webb had been targeted by the Aryan Brotherhood. The board granted Webb parole, but within months of his release he was caught with cocaine and returned to prison.

In March, 2000, several months after Gilbert’s visit, Webb unexpectedly sent Jackson a Motion to Recant Testimony, declaring, “Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges.” But Willingham’s lawyer was not informed of this development, and soon afterward Webb, without explanation, recanted his recantation. When I recently asked Webb, who was released from prison two years ago, about the turnabout and why Willingham would have confessed to a virtual stranger, he said that he knew only what “the dude told me.” After I pressed him, he said, “It’s very possible I misunderstood what he said.” Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder.

“Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy,” he said. “My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that.” He paused, then said, “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”

Aside from the scientific evidence of arson, the case against Willingham did not stand up to scrutiny. Jackson, the prosecutor, said of Webb’s testimony, “You can take it or leave it.” Even the refrigerator’s placement by the back door of the house turned out to be innocuous; there were two refrigerators in the cramped kitchen, and one of them was by the back door. Jimmie Hensley, the police detective, and Douglas Fogg, the assistant fire chief, both of whom investigated the fire, told me recently that they had never believed that the fridge was part of the arson plot. “It didn’t have nothing to do with the fire,” Fogg said.

After months of investigating the case, Gilbert found that her faith in the prosecution was shaken. As she told me, “What if Todd really was innocent?”
Please read the entire article.

The Dallas Morning News' Texas Death Penalty blog has a guest column today by Nina Morrison, a Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project. She rebuts the arguments made last week by Judge John Jackson, who was one of the prosecutors for Navarro County in the Cameron Todd Willingham case.

Jackson embarrassed himself last week in a column he wrote in the Corsicana Daily News claiming "the trial testimony you reported in 1991 contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report". He wrote his article in response to the state-funded report by Dr Craig Beyler that said "a finding of arson could not be sustained" under scientific analysis. The 16,000 word New Yorker article, which came out after Jackson's article, also contains information that counters Jackson's column, so be sure to read the New Yorker article.

Here is what Nina Morrison says about Jackson:
The truth is that all of the evidence that Jackson and his colleagues used to convict Willingham has been disproven. In the five years since Willingham was executed, several investigations - including an exhaustive report in the New Yorker this week - deconstruct all of the evidence and show that he was innocent.

Jackson himself now admits that the forensic case supporting the arson theory is "undeniably flawed" but he clings to the idea that Willingham was guilty, focusing on seven other points and shading each of them to conceal the truth:

1. Jackson claims Willingham beat his wife when she was pregnant in an attempt to end her pregnancies. In fact, Willingham's wife has denied this and also told investigators he would never hurt his children.
2. Jackson claims Willingham's burns were so minor that they must have been self- inflicted to fake evidence of trying to save his family. In fact, scientific experts have conducted experiments with identical fires and Willingham's burns are normal for this type of fire.

3. Jackson claims medical tests show Willingham didn't inhale smoke and thus didn't try to rescue his family. In fact, Willingham tried desperately to go back into the house but firefighters physically restrained him.

4. Jackson claims Willingham refused to take a polygraph examination. This is true, but it is by no means evidence of guilt. Defense attorneys routinely advise their clients not to take polygraphs because they have proven unreliable (which is why they are not admissible in court).

5. Jackson likens Willingham to "violent sociopaths." In fact, a prosecution expert who testified that Willingham was a "sociopath" was expelled from his professional association just three years later for unethical behavior, including making diagnoses without examining people. Willingham's former probation officer and a judge both directly refute any notion that he was a sociopath.

6. Jackson claims Willingham meant to kill only his twins, citing the origin of the fire in their room and a witness who supposedly heard him whisper to his older daughter's body that she wasn't supposed to die. In fact, even the experts at Willingham's trial admitted that they could not detect chemicals showing arson in the twins' room. A grieving father telling his dead daughter that she wasn't supposed to die is not evidence of guilt.

7. Jackson claims that a refrigerator in the house was pushed against a door, implying that Willingham moved it to trap the children inside. In fact, the refrigerator was covering a back door because there were two refrigerators in the small kitchen. The police detective and the fire chief who handled the case both now say that the refrigerator's location does not support the theory that the fire was arson.

1 comment:

Gunnery Sergeant Chimichanga said...

This is horrifying. I can only hope that this will start a national debate ending in the abolition of capital punishment.