The Ghost of Cameron Todd Willingham

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

For the rest of Rick Perry's political career, may Willingham always be by his side:


The fire investigators who fingered Willingham relied on the kind of sorcery that fire scientists have tried for the past 20 years to chase from the field. The informant, for his part, claimed that Willingham had inexplicably blurted out a confession, then recanted his tale. Then, in the words of New Yorker reporter David Grann, he "recanted his recantation." When Grann tracked him down in 2009, he told him that "it's very possible I misunderstood" what Willingham said, pausing to add "the statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn't it?" 

Perry was unswayed by pleas from Willingham's lawyers and rejected their request for a 30-day reprieve. This registers as a rather mild atrocity in Texas, a state that does not so much tinker with the machinery of death as it gleefully fumbles at the controls. In 2000, an investigation by The Chicago Tribune found that almost one-third of court-appointed defense lawyers in capital cases in Texas had, at some point, been publicly sanctioned by the state's trial board. The Tribune uncovered cases of lawyers falling asleep at trials, engaging in extortion and assaulting teenage girls. 

Prosecutors and police were found concealing evidence or worse. In 1980, Cesar Fierro received the death penalty on the strength of a confession secured after an El Paso sheriff colluded with police across the border in Juárez, Mexico, who arrested Fierro's parents and threatened to attach an electric generator to his stepfather's genitals. Fierro is still on death row. 

Texas regularly executes more criminals than any other state, and does so in such haphazard fashion that it could be comic. 

Except people are dying.

There really is no polite way to say this: The particular manner in which Texas employs the death penalty is a disgrace to the country. And there's no real end in sight. I am opposed to the death penalty, largely because I think a situation like this, somewhere, is unavoidable. 

On Willingham, I highly recommend everyone in the DC area check out Incendiary, which looks at the case. The explanation of fire science, and the phrenology employed by arson investigators in the case, is gripping. See it. 

And if you haven't read David Grann's piece on the case, please make time. The two compliment each other well.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/the-ghost-of-cameron-todd-willingham/240901/