Probably the best thing about writing that column was the sheer amount of great, great journalism I got to read. The Chicago Tribune series is incredible and classic even ten years later. Incendiary is a gripping fact-based explanation, not just of fire science, but how the science that convicted Willingham was wrong. It's one of the most sober debunkings I've ever seen. I don't think there's much more we can say about David Grann's piece that hasn't been said already. Obviously it was essential.
But one piece of journalism that deserves to be remembered and re-read over and over again is The Texas Monthly's monster of an investigation, "Death Isn't Fair."
My favorite part of the piece is how it demonstrates that even statements like my own ("Texas fumbles at the machinery of death" or whatever I said) actually don't communicate the true nuance of the state. Consider this:
Only about one in a hundred killings ends up as a death penalty case. Who decides? The local district attorney. What does he base his decision on? There's no simple answer. Prosecutors have enormous discretion and are accountable to no one, except to the voters who elect them. You might think that politics would cause all DAs to be death penalty advocates, but this is not borne out by the facts. Since 1976, only 116 of Texas' 254 counties (fewer than half) have sentenced a person to death; more than half the counties (138) have never sent anyone to death row.
The arbitrariness of the thing is baffling. Conceivably two people could commit the same crimes in two different counties and one could lose his life, while the other doesn't. The arbitrariness doesn't end there. Ernest Ray Willis was accused of almost the exact same crime as Cameron Todd Willingham and convicted with the same pseudo-scientific methods. They were even in prison together, on the same death row. Willis--who came within two days of being executed
--is alive, as you can in this video
. Willingham is not.
Watch the video. Read the piece. The information is out there. There are no excuses.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power