Was It a Wrongful Execution?

The New Yorker's David Grann and three others refute a Willingham prosecutor's arguments

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The Atlantic Wire recently reviewed some of the controversy ignited by recent AP and New Yorker stories on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man some argue was wrongfully convicted and executed for murdering his three children. An op-ed in the Corsicana Daily Sun, however, by one of the case's original prosecutors, has since inspired not one but four complete rebuttals--one from each of David Grann, author of the New Yorker story; Nina Morrison, Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project; a Massachusetts lawyer named Victor Steinbok; and Michael Landauer, editor of the Texas Death Penalty blog. Here are their varying refutations of the Honorable John Jackson's list of arguments:

1. Willingham had already tried to kill his children by beating his pregnant wife. He may have beaten him wife, responded Grann, "but there were no police reports or medical evidence indicating th Willingham had tried to abort or kill his children." It's "an enormous stretch," wrote Landauer. A "pattern" of violence, added Victor Steinbok, "is only valid if there is actual evidence that the children were murdered--no arson, no murder."

2. Willingham's burns from the fire that killed his offspring were "superficial," and likely self-inflicted. Bogus, all four writers declared.

3. Blood-gas analysis showed he had not inhaled smoke. So maybe he was a coward, Steinbok suggested, not a murderer."Firefighters physical restrained him" from reentering the burning house, Nina Morrison pointed out.

4. Willingham refused a polygraph test. Perhaps because defense attorneys usually don't let their clients take these tests, which are inadmissible in court, offered Grann, Morrison, and Steinbok. "So what?" Added Landauer.

5. Willingham was a "violent" and "vicious" man--"a serial wife abuser." Landauer repeated his earlier question: "So what?" The "expert" who testified to this effect was "expelled from his professional association just three years later," Morrison wrote. Were Willingham "impulsive" and "violent," offered Steinbok, wouldn't the premeditation required for arson elude him?

6. "Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, 'You're not the one who was supposed to die.'"
Landauer's response was the shortest: "Who knows what this statement means. Maybe me meant he should have died."

7. A refrigerator "had been pushed against the back door" of the burning house. Not even the original investigators thought this had anything to do with "the arson plot," Grann wrote. The Willinghams simply had two refrigerators, one by the back door. The other three writers concurred.

The conclusion of all these rebuttals? The recent evidence against arson is indeed significant. Michael Landauer summed up the general response to Jackson:

All of this is grasping at straws, and none of it matters if the finding of arson could not be supported. If there's no arson, there's no crime. Period. You have to prove a crime took place, not just that the defendant was a bad person.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.