Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The State of Texas Has Executed an Innocent Man

This is not my "opinion," not mere speculation, and not anti-DP propaganda. This is history, because it's never been this crystal clear before.

A nationally known expert has concluded that a fire was not arson, a finding that contradicted trial testimony that led to the conviction and execution of a Texas man.
The expert, Craig Beyler, reviewed the case of Cameron Todd Willingham for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created to investigate allegations of forensic mistakes, the Chicago Tribune reports. The newspaper obtained a copy of his report.
Willingham was convicted of murder for the deaths of his three children who perished in the fire. Beyler is one of nine top fire scientists who have reviewed the case and found that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore, the story says.
Beyler wrote that the state fire marshal investigating the case "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created.”

Wow. What happens now?


Anonymous said...

Leaving aside the merits of the death penalty for a moment...

Did Beyler conclude that the fire was not a result of arson (but rather some other natural or accidental cause), or just that the evidence introduced at trial was totally inadequate to prove arson?

Until the answer to that is clear, it remains up in the air whether Texas executed an innocent man or whether Texas executed a man whose guilt could not be established beyond a reasonable doubt solely on the basic of forensic evidence. Very different propositions.

Anonymous said...

For additional information, this site has a link to a .pdf of Beyler's full report, well worth reading:

Beyler does not conclude that the fire was not arson. He concludes that: "The investigations of the Willis and Willingham fires did not comport with either the modern standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980-1992. The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination. A finding of arson could not be sustained based upon the standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the the period 1980-1992."

Beyler offers no opinion on whether the fire was arson or not--just about the shortcomings of the investigations based on subsequently developed standards (i.e., NFPA 921) and contemporaneous literature on fire investigations.

Interestingly, according to Beyler's report, a theory advanced by Willingham's defense counsel at trial was that the fire was the result of arson, but that it was started by Willingham's oldest daughter, Amber. (Amber was two years old at the time.)

The Beyler report does not vindicate Todd Willingham. It just raises questions about the quality of some of the forensic evidence used against him at trial (some of which, per Beyler, were raised by defense counsel in cross examination at the time), while remaining agnostic about the original investigators' conclusions.

matt said...

Anonymous, whoever you are, you seem at great pains to clarify that the report did not conclude Cameron Todd Willingham was "innocent." I'll spot you that my headline should have read "not proven to be guilty," but every other account of the Beyler report I've read concludes there was no basis to call the fire arson, which would mean more than sufficient reasonable doubt. Moreover, nobody--not the prosecutor, not the usual line of die-hards who defend the death penalty--has come forward to defend the forensics that led to Mr. Willingham's execution--a state-sanctioned murder that now, it's clear, has been shown unwarranted.

I'm curious as to why you are so anxious to conclude the opposite of what nearly every interviewed person has concluded: Beyler himself concluded that the finding of arson was UNSCIENTIFIC, for heck's sake. Willingham doesn't have to be "vindicated" for it to be proven that he should not have been found guilty, and should not have been executed.

In a related mastter, according to AP, "In the other case cited in the report, Ernest Ray Willis was convicted in 1987 in a fatal house fire in Iraan, but was freed after 17 years on death row when a federal judge ruled that authorities concealed evidence and needlessly drugged him during his trial." The real question, it seems to me, is why we should ever, ever, trust a prosecutor at their word.

I maintain that the state of Texas executed a man whose guilt was not proven, and this is functionally indistinct from executing an innocent person.

Anonymous said...

I'm not "at great pains" to do anything other than determine whether, as you said, Texas executed an innocent man. You stated that as fact, not your 'opinion,' not mere speculation, and not anti-DP propaganda. You were either wrong or engaging in hyperbole.

Should we be concerned about the reliability of forensic evidence in trials? Absolutely. Does Beyler's report show that the fire investigators in the Willingham case weren't operating according to the best standards (of today or of their time)? Yes.

But does Beyler's report claim that the fire wasn't a result of arson? No. Does Beyler point to any facts that he says are inconsistent with arson? No. Does Beyler venture any opinion about the likelihood that it was or wasn't arson? No.

You recognize the greater perceived importance of "outcomes" than "process" in criminal justice, or you wouldn't have been so excited at the clarity of an innocent man being put to death. But then, with the closing paragraph of your comment in response, you pretend that "process" and "outcome" are functionally indistinct. To do that is to divorce the justice system from the pre-existing notions of justice that the system is intended to serve.

I can think of few people willing to do that. If Todd Willingham deliberately set a fire that burned his two year old daughter and one year old twins alive (as he claimed to have done), he is not what most people would consider "an innocent man," even if he were to be acquitted at trial. If Todd Willingham didn't start the fire (e.g., it was an unfortunate accident), he is not what most people would consider "a guilty man," even though he might have been convicted at trial.

Like it or not, most people prioritize their sense of justice over judicial process in a situation like this. For most, it simply comes down to whether the deceased did, in fact, kill his babies. If so, then procedural failings along the way may be of some concern, but are not "Stop this train!" tragic. If not, then an "injustice" has been done, even if there were no procedural failings.

But what of death penalty opponents? For them, every execution is an injustice--regardless of whether the convicted was factually guilty and regardless of whether there were procedural flaws along the way. For them, it doesn't matter if Willingham incinerated his babies. It wouldn't matter if he tortured them first, pissed on their charred remains afterwards, and posted a video of the proceedings on the Internet, then signed a notarized confession after being properly Mirandized and advised not to by Alan Dershowitz. They would still picket. They would still commission experts to write reports in an effort to sway the governor, the Supreme Court, or public opinion.

I'm agnostic on the death penalty, but I would oppose it if I believed that factually innocent people were being executed. So far, I have no reason to believe that. Actually, anti-death penalty activists lead me to the opposite conclusion by their failure -- as in this case -- to show that factually innocent people are being executed.

matt said...

The sole basis of your argument is that Beyler has stopped short of declaring Willingham innocent. In other words, Beyler has the intellectual honesty to know that nobody can prove a negative. However, you are deliberately ignoring and downplaying the severity of Beyler's conclusions:

"...Texas fire investigators had _no_ basis to rule that a deadly house fire was arson..."

" evidence to determine that the December 1991 fire was even set..."

"Over the last five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation’s top fire scientists — first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of an arson."

" dismisses as _slipshod_ the investigations by Deputy State Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg."

"[Fogg] relied on his _personal- belief rather than using the scientific method or the process of elimination,” Beyler wrote. “In the end, the only (basis) for the determination of arson ... is the burn patterns on the floor of the children's bedroom, the hallway and the porch interpreted as accelerant spill. None of these determinations have any basis in modern fire science.”

"Vasquez's conclusions were _contradicted by eyewitnesses accounts_ of the fire, Beyler found. Beyler also argued that Vasquez misread burn patterns, erroneously concluding that they indicated the fire had been deliberately set."

If you could point to a single POSITIVE fact in defense of the testimony that sent Willingham to his death, I might conclude that you are not obsessed with vindicating the state of Texas. Did they do ANYTHING right in the trial? If not, why are you so eager to downplay what, to me, are extremely strong conclusions that there would have been more-than-reasonable doubt about his guilt? Why hasn't a single commentator, prosecutor, former prosecutor, forensic scientist, or fire expert come out in defense of the evidence Beyler has attacked? I mean, not one?

I was wrong to apologize for declaring Willingham innocent earlier. The presumption of innocence, which this evidence, in retrospect, failed to dismantle, is morally indistinct from innocence.

Texas fucked up this time.

matt said...

Your statement that Beyler's report merely "raises questions" is ridiculous in the face of the strongly-worded language of Beyler's conclusions.

Anonymous said...

You're grasping at straws here, Matt. My "argument" was in response to your claim that Beyler's report proved that Texas executed an innocent man. The report proved nothing of the sort. If you read it, Beyler's silence on the key question is deafening.

Beyler has the "intellectual honesty to know that nobody can prove a negative?" Did you read the report? One of Beyler's chief criticisms is that the investigators did not follow modern or then-contemporary published standards for scientifically excluding non-intentional sources for the fire. In other words, the investigators did not prove a negative (i.e., that the fire was not accidental). If it's not unreasonable to demand that the original investigators prove a negative (ruling out alternative theories), is it unreasonable to expect Beyler to be able to rule out arson on the basis of the same facts? Hardly. But Beyler doesn't do that. He's silent on that issue through the entire report, focusing solely on the original investigators' methodology, never on the accuracy of their conclusion.

I'm puzzled by your concluding line. The presumption of innocence is morally indistinct from innocence? Our legal system isn't the Pope, Jesus, or what have you, washing away sins with acquittals and mistrials. Or do you think it is? Are our moral judgments of guilt or innocence "wrong," if they don't match their legal counterparts in the criminal justice system? If you believe so, you run into one problem right away, which is that Willingham was found guilty and lost all of his appeals. If you're proclaiming his innocence, it has to be on the basis of something outside the processes and outcomes of the system that declared him "guilty" and worthy of death.

matt said...

We're talking past each other.

1. No basis for ruling the fire was arson.
2. No basis for ruling that the fire was even set--even, presumably, by accident.
3. Reliance on outdated theories.
4. Sloppy investigation.
5. Reliance on personal belief by investigators rather than reasoning from empirically established facts to conclusion.
6. Contradicted by eyewitness accounts.
7. Misreading of burn patterns.
8. You haven't pointed out anything the original investigation or findings actually did RIGHT
9. Nobody has come forth in defense of the original investigation.

All of this is far more important than the hair-splitting about innocence versus failure to prove guilt. At this point, you seem to be saying that a post-execution investigation should go further than demonstrating that the original finding of guilt was faulty. Your invocation of the appeals Willingham lost is especially pathetic since you obviously know that proof of innocence (or post-trial proof of reasonable doubt) does not constitute grounds to appeal a conviction. So really, you keep posting here because your groin tightens up in shame and frustration at the idea that your precious state of Texas (I can only assume you're from Texas) fucked up. But fuck up they did. You should be concerned about that, not about my allegedly incorrect use of the term "innocence." Fight the real enemy. I am inconsequential. I am not killing anyone.

Anonymous said...

Though many of the claims on your list are overstated, I don't fundamentally disagree with them. I don't disagree with your statement that Texas fucked up (though I have in mind the fire inspectors, while you seem to condemn the system more broadly). If you hammered on the state for the sloppiness of past fire inspections, called for an oversight board to ensure greater care is taken in the future, and demanded that all arson cases be reexamined in light of current knowledge about fire science, I wouldn't disagree with you. Do it. Call for it. Start a petition and I'll sign it.

Where we disagree is on the question of whether Todd Willingham was wrongfully convicted (though, as far as I know, neither of us have reviewed all of the evidence available to the jurors, including Willingham's confession to a fellow jail mate). You're convinced he was. I'm not. (If Beyler said that the forensic evidence was inconsistent with arson, that would go a damn long ways towards turning me around on that.)

To go back where I started, you know that factual innocence matters. Convince people that a baby-killer was convicted based on some flawed forensic evidence and you'll get a shrug. Convince them that the man convicted did not kill his babies, and you start moving minds (especially if the conviction is followed by execution).

I'll just repeat the point on which we do agree. Texas officials dropped the ball in these fire investigations. Whether or not they resulted in an innocent man being convicted, that's a serious matter that should be rectified going forward and, to the extent it can be done, retroactively.

matt said...

In addition to hoping you read the New Yorker article I posted a few hours ago, my anonymous friend, I should also say that Barry Scheck sees fit to call Willingham, yes, "innocent." With no qualifiers.

If he's exaggerating, I am proud to exaggerate with him.

Anonymous said...

This is the same Barry Scheck that proved O.J. Simpson's innocence, right?

matt said...

Oh please. Is that seriously the best you've got? Yes, Scheck was part of the defense team that got Simpson acquitted on the grounds of reasonable doubt, a fully justified verdict (read Alan Dershowitz's fine _Reasonable Doubts_ for details on the numerous grounds for reasonable doubt in the Simpson case) even if, as most people think, Simpson probably committed the murders.

What's the point of your question? To assassinate Scheck's character (by pointing out that he's a successful lawyer)? To prove some convoluted point?

Please don't post here again until you've read the New Yorker article. Consider it the equivalent of taking a prerequisite to get into my advanced politics class.

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