Monday, August 31, 2009

Todd Willingham: his prosecutor sleeps easy

As predicted, the prosecutor responsible for convicting Todd Willingham does not believe for one second that Willingham is innocent. In fact, declares the now judge, Willingham's guilt was never in doubt. Well, I'm sure that's what the Hon. John Jackson needs to believe so he can sleep at night. Otherwise, he might have to think that he played a major role in executing an innocent man. But while Jackson's response is predictable and even somewhat understandable, it's also thoroughly frustrating.

I don't find Jackson's defense of his case to be compelling at all. Yes, Willingham beat his wife (but Jackson's list is the first and only time I've read anything suggesting he tried to induce miscarriages). And he swore when he refused to take a polygraph. (For the record, I would refuse to take a polygraph. They're complete and total bunk.) I think Jackson is just wrong about the refrigerator blocking the back door entirely. I have read that the fridge was just always there and a person could still get out through the door. But, read this New Yorker article if you really want a more in depth understanding of the facts.

I'm not really interested in taking on Jackson's bullet points in great detail. I'm more concerned with his total unwillingness to admit any doubt whatsoever about Willingham's guilt. It's this almost pathological inability to admit even the possibility of having made a mistake that makes me distrust prosecutors so. We have to be willing to acknowledge mistakes if we have any hope of improving our system for the future.

Jackson, and all those who promote Willingham's guilt as unassailable, ought to admit that the entire case was premised on a fraud. The initial fire investigator, Manuel Vasquez (the one described by another fire expert as having no understanding of fire) decided this particular fire was arson. (According to the New Yorker article, he testified that "most" of the fires he investigated were arson, a claim so fanciful it should have immediately destroyed his credibility with any rational person.) Every aspect of the investigation from that moment on was colored by this perception. The eyewitnesses suddenly remembered things a little differently to cast suspicion on Willingham, not out of malice but because that's how the human mind works. Jackson's own belief that Willingham's profane refusal to take a polygraph is somehow indicative of guilt was colored by his presumption that the fire was arson: a presumption based solely on Vasquez' folklore.

We could learn things from this case if we could discuss it honestly as a case of wrongful conviction. Maybe we could also have a more honest discussion about whether we want to continue pursuing the death penalty in light of the fact that we have now executed a man where the scientific evidence shows no crime occurred. But we won't be able to have that discussion if those who most need to learn what went wrong doggedly refuse to see any error.

But let me submit to you this: if the people involved in sending Todd Willingham to his death are completely unable to face the possibility that he was innocent, maybe that is evidence enough that we should abandon the death penalty. If we really can't live with the consequences of getting it wrong, we shouldn't be taking the risk in the first place.


DBB said...

This is utterly predictable. And the death advocates will continue to claim there is no evidence that there was ever an innocent man convicted, citing the aforementioned bullet points.

Lee N. said...

The death penalty does deter crime. Very few merderers can commit additional murders from the grave.

S said...

And that is a completely off-topic, non-point, Lee. What of Mr. Willingham? It would appear that the death penalty did not need to deter him of committing any "additional" murders as the scientific evidence now has made it pretty clear he never committed any murder in the first place.

I warned readers that anyone wishing to support the death penalty had to be willing to acknowledge the reality that we have made a mistake. Are you willing to admit the mistake? And are you really willing to sacrifice another Willingham or two just to satisfy your desire for "deterrence"? Until you admit a mistake was made (or at least that it's possible), you have no credibility with me.

DBB said...

Lee also commits the common error with specific deterrence claims - he assumes 100% accuracy, which this case disproves. To use another example of a different kind of case - say there really is a murder, but the wrong person is convicted for it and executed. The REAL murder is still very much alive and able to commit additional murders in that case. Further, given how even in a case where it is clear that an innocent was executed, prosecutors still refuse to admit this, they will never EVER go after the real murderer because to do so would be to admit they were wrong and that they themsleves murdered an innocent man. So the death penalty can't even guarantee specific deterence in the manner Lee discusses.

S said...

I've certainly never been persuaded by this sort of specific deterrence argument. It seems like nothing more than thinly-veiled vengeance to me.

By the by, I believe I found Lee also commenting on a NY Times article. His comment there was almost word for word his comment here, which leads me to believe he really doesn't have anything better to contribute to the discussion.

DBB said...

Ah - well, it just shows that what he is saying is a talking point, not an argument. I had a post about the death penalty, and why I was against it, on my blog a long while back and I got a very long, canned response from someone which included a long list of all of the "safeguards" in a death penalty case. I fisked it and predictably, the guy never responded or appeared again - he just was doing drive-by talking points, created by someone else.

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