by Patrick Appel

Jonah noted this earlier, but David Grann's article on Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by Texas in 2004, is a must read. The overwhelming evidence, some of it unearthed by Grann for the first time, suggests that Willingham was not guilty. I can't believe that this was admitted:

The prosecution cited such evidence in asserting that Willingham fit the profile of a sociopath, and brought forth two medical experts to confirm the theory. Neither had met Willingham. One of them was Tim Gregory, a psychologist with a master’s degree in marriage and family issues, who had previously gone goose hunting with [prosecutor John] Jackson, and had not published any research in the field of sociopathic behavior. His practice was devoted to family counselling.

At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s houseand asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.” Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depictingit reminds me of something like Hell. And there’s a picturea Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel. . . . I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”

I've long been against the death penalty because the criminal justice system is fallible and because pursuing the death penalty is a terrible allocation of resources. In his excellent new book, Mark Kleiman describes how our limited criminal justice dollars are squandered by pursuing the harshest of penalties. He writes:

Theory and evidence agree: swift and certain punishment, even if not severe, will control the vast bulk of offending behavior. One problem with the brute-force, high-severity approach is that severity is incompatible with swiftness and certainty. Severity means using a large share of punishment resources on a (relatively) few offenders, and (as the American experience with capital punishment since its reintroduction illustrates) the more severe a sentence is the more reluctantly it will be imposed and the more “due process” and therefore the more timeit will require.

The resources of the current criminal-justice system, matched against the volume of crime, simply do not allow it to punish, even modestly, all offenses or all offenders. Trying to control everything and everyonethe tough-sounding “zero tolerance” approachleads to sporadic and delayed punishments as the system overloads. The result is great quantities of punishment, much of it severe, and effective control of nothing and no one except those actually behind bars: a bad bargain.

On a related note, Grann quotes the prosecutor in the case:

Unlike many other prosecutors in the state, Jackson, who had ambitions of becoming a judge, was personally opposed to capital punishment. “I don’t think it’s effective in deterring criminals,” he told me. “I just don’t think it works.” He also considered it wasteful: because of the expense of litigation and the appeals process, it costs, on average, $2.3 million to execute a prisoner in Texasabout three times the cost of incarcerating someone for forty years.

It's not conceivable that the so called deterrent effect from capital punishment is three times more effective than forty years in prison. Not only is capital punishment unethical for the reasons made very clear by Grann's reporting, it results in more crime for the reasons outlined by Kleiman. It's an illogical feature of the criminal justice system only made possible by political opportunism and the all-to-human desire for revenge. Another incredible bit of reporting from Grann:

In March, 2000...[prison informant Johnney] Webb [who said that Willingham confessed to him] unexpectedly sent [the case's prosecutor John] 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?”

Read it all.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.