If ever you should need an argument against the death penalty, you could scarcely do better than the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed in Texas in 2004 for deaths by arson — for which he was not responsible. His story is told in “Trial By Fire” by David Grann in the current New Yorker. Willingham’s case has come to prominence again because his was one of the first investigated by a Texas government commission set up to examine errors and misconduct by forensic scientists — something that Canada has recent experience with.
Craig Beyler, an expert on fire engaged by the commission has said that in Willingham’s case there was “no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson.” As Grann puts it:
[Investigators] ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. [Beyler] said that [investigator] Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”
I discovered at the end of the article that no U.S. state has ever officially acknowledged that “since the advent of the modern judicial system” it has executed an innocent person. Texas, the state that has executed more people than any other (439 since 1976) may become the first to do so.