If Cameron Todd Willingham had followed his lawyer’s advice and pleaded guilty to burning his three daughters to death, accepting a life sentence instead of risking the death penalty, we would probably never have known that he was innocent. Because he was on Death Row, his conviction – based on junk-science psychiatric and forensic evidence and (as usual) the testimony of a jailhouse snitch – has now been shown to be wrongful.
Too bad Willingham has already been executed.
Both David Grann, author of a chillingly matter-of-fact account in the New Yorker, and Patrick Appel* at the Atlantic treat the Willingham case as an argument against the death penalty. But is putting an innocent man in a maximum-security prison for the rest of his life really more tolerable than executing him?
The issue here isn’t capital punishment; it’s a trial process too open to bullsh*t, and the fetishization of “finality of verdict.” If only 1% of our prison inmates are factually innocent – which seems to me like a ludicrously optimistic estimate, given how many convicts have been exonerated by DNA testing – we have 17,000 people behind bars at any one time for crimes they didn’t commit.
I am aware of only one jurisdiction in the United States that maintains a team of investigators dedicated to developing new evidence to overturn guilty verdicts (and pleas). That’s a crime. And it’s also a crime that Gov. Rick Perry’s role in allowing the execution of an innocent man seems very unlikely to damage his political future in Texas.
* Appel gives a nice shout-out to my book. Greatly appreciated.