Reigniting Questions About the Death Penalty

A recent forensic report and media coverage have thrown an old case and questions about the death penalty back into the limelight

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The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for arson that led to the death of his three children, is back. Long questioned by professional fire investigators and anti-death penalty advocates, two recent reports--one from the Texas Forensic Science Commission and another from The New Yorker--have reignited the furor. As the media and public react to the horrifying possibility of a wrongful execution, opinions have poured in from not just from bloggers and editorial boards, but also from lawyers, including one of the prosecutors in the Willingham case.

  • Time to Rethink the Death Penalty  The New York Times editorial board found the recent report "further evidence that the justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty." They praised the commission for the inquiry, but called it "outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before."
  • I, Personally, Oppose the Death Penalty  In a Huffington Post op-ed, Cy Vance, a candidate for District Attorney in Manhattan, cautioned against presumption of guilt based on the severity of the alleged crime. He reiterated his "opposition to the death penalty," and his belief that "our justice system" owes a careful examination of cases "to the men and women standing trial, to the victims seeking true justice, and to the men and women whose lives can never be restored after wrongful convictions." As a parting point, after discussing the dangers of "societal pressure" on certain cases, he added,
I have, as a candidate for District Attorney in Manhattan, called for a Conviction Integrity Panel in the DA's Office, which will put cases under a magnifying glass before they go to trial or reach a verdict, looking for all of the problems I saw as a defense attorney, which could lead to putting an innocent person in jail.
  • Faulty Report Regrettable But Irrelevant: He Was Guilty  Fortunately for Cy Vance, the Honorable John Jackson, one of the prosecutors in the Willingham case, does not get to vote in New York. Calling the forensic report on the Willingham case "undeniably flawed," Jackson nevertheless laid out seven independent examples of the "overwhelming evidence of guilt." Among these seven were Willingham's violence towards his wife "with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages," his sociopathic "vicious attacks on animals," his refusal to take a polygraph test, witness statements regarding a confession directed towards his older daughter's corpse, and a blocked back escape route from the burning house. So why is everyone still protesting the conviction? "The Willingham trial," he wrote, "has become a sort of cause celebre by anti-death penalty proponents." While these proponents, he concluded,  "can muster some remarkably good arguments, Todd Willingham should not be anyone's poster child."
  • Inexcusable Prosecutorial Obstinacy  Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias also weighed in, countering that the case, as David Grann's New Yorker story laid it out, was "founded on forensic evidence that’s not backed up by any real science, a mentally unstable semi-repentant jailhouse snitch, and some badly flawed eyewitness testimony." But he saved his harshest words for the prosecution team:
Part of the problem is simply that no system is foolproof. But part of the problem is a mentality among law enforcement and prosecutors that convicting the innocent is a workable second-best alternative to convicting the guilty. This leads to enormous and irrational resistance to ever rethinking 'successful' prosecutions.

Cameron Willingham's execution, for many, illuminates the troubling intersection of death penalty and due process. While Grann's New Yorker piece--to which many of these writers were responding--did not explicitly advance an opinion, it did include the view of one arguably far more famed and influential than the New York Times editorial board, Cy Vance, John Jackson, and Matthew Yglesias combined:

In 1868, John Stuart Mill made one of the most eloquent defenses of capital punishment, arguing that executing a murderer did not display a wanton disregard for life but, rather, proof of its value. "We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself," he said. For Mill, there was one counterargument that carried weight--"that if by an error of justice an innocent person is put to death, the mistake can never be corrected."

That appears to be the question of the day: Was Willingham was one such innocent person?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.