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Take a very, very good look at the faces in this picture.

Cameron and Amber Willingham

Those smiles belong to Amber Willingham and her father, Cameron Todd Willingham.

Both of them were killed because of an accidental fire.  Amber and her two sisters died in the blaze.  Cameron was wrongfully executed by the state of Texas for setting it.

Today, Texas took the first big step in admitting it murdered an innocent man in its death chamber.  And the implications are huge.

I've written about the Willingham case before.  For a detailed discussion of the flimsy case against Willingham that led to his execution, this diary from 2006 should suffice.  But briefly: the Texas fire marshals, using a combination of old wives' tales and junk science, managed to take an accidental and tragic fire in which three little girls perished and turn it into a murder case, ginning up enough false evidence to convict the girls' father and sentence him to death.  The errors in the forensics were discovered with plenty of time before the execution date, but Governor Rick Perry (in the single most craven act of cowardice from a politician since Martin Sheen used a baby for a shield in "The Dead Zone") declined to intervene and to further his own career as a "tough on crime" politician allowed an innocent man to die by lethal injection.  Following the execution, the Innocence Project brought in a panel of fire experts (including my father, seen here disproving another bad arson conviction) to review the case, and they systematically undermined every scintilla of forensic evidence relied upon by Texas to obtain the conviction (long story short, fire science changed dramatically in the 1990s, and Texas's experts were still thinking it was the 70s).

Here's where the story picks up: following some high-profile forensic screw-ups, including the Willingham case, the Texas Legislature in 2005 created a commission to investigate lab error, negligence, and misconduct among forensic experts.  Their first major review was the Willingham case.  The commission hired an outside firm to review the case materials and issue a report.  Their investigator, Craig Beyler, just released his findings, and his report is absolutely brutal:

In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule a deadly house fire was an arson -- a finding that led to the murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.


Among Beyler's key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams' house in the small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene, and wrongly concluded Willingham's injuries could not have been caused as he said they were.

The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had "limited understanding" of fire science. The fire marshal "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created," he wrote.

The marshal's findings, he added, "are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."


I'm an abolitionist.  State-sponsored killing holds very little interest for me, and I don't believe that governments ought to be in the business of executing their own citizens.  I've met (and spoken at length with) people who've faced wrongful conviction for murder, and I fail to see how their undeserved torment brought any justice to our society.  

My family was touched by murder--my uncle Joseph was shot in the head before I was born, and my grandfather's anger stayed with him until his dying day.  I've seen dear friends whose lives were shattered by the murder of loved ones, including one of my first English teachers, whose son was shot and killed while working the counter of a Burger King across the street from my elementary school.  Even people on this very site have lived through the nightmare of a murder in the family.  I think I understand the rage and pain and sorrow and madness that such a thing causes in those left to collect the pieces after the crime.

I'm an abolitionist because murder is murder, whether the killing is done by citizens or by the state. It's up to our society to say, in as dispassionate a voice as possible, that murder is intolerable and will result in your expulsion from Eden into an institutional Hell for the rest of your sorry-ass life.  But even if you disagree with that--even if you think that there are reasons that justify state-sanctioned killing--you have to admit (as Texas is poised to do, and as Illinois already has) that we're just not that good at executing only guilty people.

I'm an abolitionist, and Texas's murder of Cameron Todd Willingham is why you should be, too.

Click here to join the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Click here to join the Innocence Project.

Click here to learn about the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium project.

Click here to join Sister Helen Prejan's Moratorium Campaign.

Originally posted to JR on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 12:07 PM PDT.

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