It is a seventeen page article, but the writing is good and it goes fast: Trial by Fire by David Grann in The New Yorker.
It really has never been a question of if, but only of when. When an innocent would be executed, and when we will finally do away with the death penalty.
It appears that the first question has an answer.
hat tip: The New Republic
One thought on “The Question of When”
Cameron Todd Willingham: Media meltdown & the death penalty:
“Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann(1)
Dudley Sharp, contact info below
I could speculate that David Grann was an objective reporter who made the solid, unbiased case for an innocent executed. But, I think that is already being done, around the globe, with editorial writers and journalists and other anti death penalty activists, quoting extensively from Grann’s article, with little or no fact checking and absent critical thinking.
So, why not do something different?
I’ll speculate this: “David Grann, anti death penalty activist/member of the defense team”.
I list the page number in the article, followed by Grann’s comments then, my REPLY, underneath.
p 3 (Willingham) hollered, “Oh God— Amber, get out of the house! Get out of the house!’ ”He never sensed that Amber was in his room, he said. Perhaps she had already passed out by the time he stood up, or perhaps she came in after he left, through a second doorway, from the living room.”
REPLY: Folks, think about this. Grann says “Perhaps (Amber) had already passed out by the time (Willingham) stood up”. Yeah, right. “Already”. What, the millisecond it took Willingham to stand up, right after Amber’s screams woke him up? Grann, surely you can’t do much worse than that. Let’s buy Grann’s nonsense. If Amber passed out, then and there, Amber is with Willingham in his room, where Amber was found. There is no fire in that room. Willingham just leaves her.
Or, perhaps Willingham should have found Amber and gotten her out of the house. Who would leave their 2 year old to their own devices to get out of a burning house? No one, who wanted to save them.
Or perhaps, Willingham asked Amber to wait for him in his bedroom, where she was found, alive, but unconscious because of smoke inhalation, while daddy went to save the twins. Then daddy skipped out of the house.
p 6 Dozens of studies have shown that witnesses’ memories of events often change when they are supplied with new contextual information. Itiel Dror, a cognitive psychologist who has done extensive research on eyewitness and expert testimony in criminal investigations, told me, “The mind is not a passive machine. Once you believe in something — on you expect something — it changes the way you perceive information and the way your memory recalls it.”
REPLY: Grann presumes, without evidence, that some earlier statements, more sympathetic to Willingham, were more credible. Grann wouldn’t speculate that folks reflected and said, later, hey, Willingham, in reality, acted suspicious. Or they always were suspicious. Grann, for the defense.
Other facts, revealed, later, in Grann’s article, found that the more suspicious the witnesses became of Willingham’s behavior, the closer to the truth they were. In other words, Grann’s speculation on page 6, was the opposite of the reality that Grann later revealed on page 16. Grann for the defense.
Maybe Grann could have looked up some studies on increased family violence during Christmastime and played up that angle. Or what about the money issues at Christmas, non working dad, working mom. Poor. Has that ever caused stress within a family? Have fathers “without motive” murdered their children under those circumstances? Or under much less stress? Or have father’s with known, violent tendencies ever murdered their children? It’s not uncommon for violent people to murder, with no motive. They’re just mean.
Could Grann so speculate? No. Grann, for the defense.
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p 9 In recent years, though, questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can be used only in rare instances.
REPLY: I know of no one that thinks any government programs are failsafe. Does Grann? Of course not. He is just using it as sarcasm, so he can trample it.
But Grann did buy it, hook, line and sinker, that anti death penalty claims are failsafe. Why? Because he only wants to show how fallible the death penalty is. It may not be true, but, it’s good anti death penalty theater.
The anti death penalty, non fact checked literature told Grann what he wanted to hear, so, why fact check it? Credibility? Grann, anti death penalty activist.
Many reporters, blindly parrot these same anti death penalty morsels of nonsense, below A‑E, without fact checking. So travels Grann.
(A) Grann says “Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated.”
It’s total nonsense.
The 130 (now 135) death row “innocents” scam
(B) On the DNA front, Grann says DNA “saved” 17 death row inmates. Grann wants us to believe those 17 would have been executed, absent that DNA exclusion.
Can Grann prove that those 17 ever would have been executed, absent the DNA finding? Of course not.
Some reality. About 13% of death row inmates have been executed. About 44% have been removed from death row for other reasons.
8 – 9 of those 17 had already been taken off death row, prior to the DNA exclusion. Those were “saved” prior to DNA testing. Grann works the good anti death penalty drama. But, accuracy?
Mr. Grann, do you need proof, evidence or fact checking to make claims? Isn’t that, allegedly, what the article was concerned with? Oh well. Grann, anti death penalty activist.
Grann may have speculated that innocents are more protected with the death penalty than they are with lesser sentences. But, why would an anti death penalty article so speculate? It wouldn’t, of course. But, maybe it’s true.
“The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”
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p 9 © In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty.
REPLY: Why can’t Grann fact check and tell us how many of those 13 “exonerated” are actually innocent? Maybe there is a reason why. The term “exonerated” has been highly misused by anti death penalty activists, to the point where exonerated has no connection to its real meaning. See the 130 “exonerated” above and this:
Grann, review: “The Death Penalty Debate in Illinois”, JJKinsella, 6/2000, http://www.dcba.org/brief/junissue/2000/art010600.htm
Mr. Grann, fact checking? Yes, some of the reviews within the Kinsella article are very incomplete, dated and in error. However, the point is that the 13 were not exonerated. And Grann just used it, anyway.
Is fact checking such a bad thing? No. But, Grann, anti death penalty activist.
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p 9 (D) In 1993, Ruben Cantu was executed in Texas for fatally shooting a man during a robbery. Years later, a second victim, who survived the shooting, told the Houston Chronicle that he had been pressured by police to identify Cantu as the gunman, even though he believed Cantu to be innocent. Sam Millsap, the district attorney in the case, who had once supported capital punishment (“I’m no wild-eyed, pointy-headed liberal”), said that he was disturbed by the thought that he had made a mistake.
REPLY: Fact checking would be nice. The only pressure was for Moreno to identify the man who murdered Moreno’s best friend and almost murdered Moreno. The police had nothing on Moreno to pressure him. Grann for the defense.
Mr. Grann, read this:
Ruben Cantu: In the Matter of Juan Moreno: Investigation Relating to The State of Texas v. Ruben Cantu, Cause No. 85-CR-1303, 6/26/2007
(E) Instead of playing the bluff, using Grann’s imagination style of reporting, where Grann wrote that Millsap “thought he had made a mistake.”, why not be a little less nebulous and suggestive. How about — One could safely call Millsap an anti death penalty activist, who had radically changed his statements on Cantu. Explain that Millsap has gone from Cantu was innocent to, well maybe, he didn’t get adequate due process, or various versions of that. Grann wasn’t trying to get us to imagine that Millsap thought Cantu was actually innocent, was he? Millsap “thought he had made a mistake.”
And Grann left all of that out because … he only had 17 pages for his article?
Why did Grann stick all of this anti death penalty “innocence” nonsense (A‑E) into his article? It was to influence the reader into turning them toward an “innocent” Willingham. It was setting the stage. But, it was fiction.
NOTE: I sent a fact checking inquiry to New Yorker on these on 9/4/09, to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Then on 9/14, I sent to the same group with Grann, added.
So far, no reply or correction.
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p 15 Without having visited the fire scene, (fire expert Gerald) Hurst says, it was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But, based upon the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire — one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring.
REPLY: “IMPOSSIBLE.” Keep that in mind.
“Impossible” to pinpoint. But, “(Hurst) had little doubt it was an accidental fire”. “impossible to pinpoint the cause”. But, Hurst says it’s “most likely” that “the space heater or faulty wiring” was the cause.
Is “most likely” or “little doubt” scientific, or is it a game of chance, where 20% doubt is little doubt or “most likely” means 51% likely? Dr. Hurst?
How does “IMPOSSIBLE” reconcile with “little doubt” or “most likely” the space heater or the electrical wiring reconcile, scientifically? They don’t reconcile. The scientific method? Clairvoyant? Soothsayer?
Dr. Hurst, would that be a 26% vote for space heater, 25% for the electrical wiring and 49% for arson? That would give the space heater and electrical wiring a 51% “most likely”, over the “less likely” 49% for arson.
Or are we looking at 34% for heater, 34% for wiring and 32% for arson?
Dr. Hurst, which scientific method works best?
It has been reported that the gas was turned off 4 days prior to the fire. What does that do for Hurt’s “most likely”, if true? Dr. Hurst? “IMPOSSIBLE?”
Let’s go back to the (maybe) valid criticism of the state “experts” at trial, that imagination, opinion based upon fantasy/bad science and faulty judgement were their calling cards. You know “more likely than not” “most likely”. Not science.
The state arson “experts” agreed that the fire was not caused by the space heater or the electrical wiring. Has anyone contradicted their testimony on that topic, based upon the facts? “Impossible.”
Furthermore, two of the state experts, Fogg and Hensley, are, now, blasting the conclusions of the newest forensics report by Beyler.
There are, currently, 3 forensic reviews, highly critical of the courtroom testimony, The reviews are Hurst, Innocent Project and Beyler. Briefly, they say, that the trial testimony was false, that arson could not have been detected, based upon the flawed knowledge of the trial’s fire “experts” and that flashover may have caused the arson evidence, if any, to become indistinguishable from a non arson fire.
“A lot of this stuff (in Beyler’s report) is misspoken or misinterpreted,” Fogg said. “We eliminated all accidental causes.” “Beyler acknowledges that one sample did have accelerant in it, but said it was unidentified, a claim Fogg disputes.”“Beyler theorized it was a flashover, and said investigators didn’t see the difference between the intense heat of a flashover and an accelerant-driven fire.”“Fogg laughed at the notion.” ” If it had been a flashover, it would have taken out the thin layer of sheetrock on the walls, he argued.” “That house was box construction,” Fogg said. “The only sheetrock that came down was what was hit with water. The paper backing wasn’t even scorched.”
“For Hensley, the most damning evidence came from Willingham, who told officers that 2‑year-old Amber woke him up. Firefighters later found her in his bed, with burns on the soles of her feet.” ” Yet, Willingham didn’t take the girl with him when he fled, nor did he receive burns walking down that same hallway, Hensley pointed out.” “Willingham “had no more (carbon monoxide) than somebody who had just smoked a cigarette,” Hensley said. “Hensley has since become a certified arson investigator. In hindsight, he insists they took the right steps with the evidence in the Willingham case.” “We did everything we were supposed to do,” he said.
“Hensley also dismisses Beyler’s report, pointing out that Beyler didn’t talk to the investigators, and reading the testimony can’t replace first-person observations.” “You can find expert witnesses everywhere, and if you pay them enough they’ll testify to anything,” Hensley said. “They’re to be bought.” “You can’t just look at a little part. Look at the whole picture, and that’s what the jury did,” Hensley said. “If a 2‑year-old wakes you up and there’s smoke and fire everywhere, aren’t you going to at least get that one out? It couldn’t possibly have happened the way (Willingham) said.” “Willingham’s behavior afterwards did not help his case. Todd Morris was the first police officer on the scene and he found Willingham trying to push his car away from the house to save it from the fire, while his children were inside burning up, Hensley said.”
Grann, could Fogg and Hensley have been important for your article? Of course not, they don’t help the case that Grann was presenting. Grann, for the defense.
Grann, try reading this:
“No doubts: Those closest to case shed no tears for Willingham”
Hurst said it was IMPOSSIBLE to pinpoint the origin of the fire.
That means the cause of the fire is indeterminate. The fire could have been arson or could have been accidental.
Grann couldn’t speculate that such is what “IMPOSSIBLE” means. Grann for the defense.
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p 15 It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime.
REPLY: No motive?! Get rid of the kids. They’re bothering me. Just because Willingham denied it, doesn’t mean that wasn’t the motive. Have fathers “without motive” murdered their children? Or have father’s with known, violent tendencies ever murdered their children? It’s not uncommon for violent people to murder, with no motive. They’re just mean. Grann? Motive? Grann, for the defense.
Please refer to my page 6 REPLY, above.
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p 15 (Gerald) Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.”
REPLY: Remember “Without having visited the fire scene, Hurst says, it was IMPOSSIBLE to pinpoint the cause of the blaze.”
Certainly, the trial testimony of the arson “experts’ at trial may have been junk science. Although, today, with all of this additional knowledge, they still conclude is was arson.
Did anyone notice that the state experts agreed in their testimony that there were alternate scenarios for the fire and alternate possibilities for the arsonist, but that they both believed Willingham to be the arsonist? The jury heard the state arson “experts” state that there were alternate scenarios for the fire, that it may not have been arson, and that anyone could have set the fire.
Yet, those arson “experts” and the jury, with the knowledge of all of the alternate possibilities, still found for Willingham’s guilt. Now, speculate that there was a reason for that. And those reasons were covered at trial and Grann “missed” a lot of them. Grann for the defense.
NOTE: I have not read the trial transcript. I got the information on the trial testimony from other articles, which may or may not have fact checked.
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p 16 Earlier, (Willingham) had confessed to his parents that there was one thing about the day of the fire he had lied about. He said that he had never actually crawled into the children’s room. “I just didn’t want people to think I was a coward,” he said. Hurst told (Grann), “People who have never been in a fire don’t understand why those who survive often can’t rescue the victims. They have no concept of what a fire is like.”
REPLY: Hurst (?) and Grann for the defense.
Neither Hurst nor Grann has evidence that Willingham did not set the fire and murder his children. Period.
Willingham’s confession is the closest Willingham could get to admitting he murdered his children. He didn’t try to save them. He made up why he had burns. Amber, Willingham’s two year old, only had burned feet. She was found in a different room. She was in the master bedroom with Willingham when she “woke” him because of the fire. Willingham had the opportunity to grab Amber and take her out of the house, with him. If we use Grann’s speculation, maybe Amber passed out in Willingham’s bedroom, with her dad, and he just left her there. Remember, the only reason Willingham gave, that he left Amber, was that he told Amber to get out, as Willingham tried to save the twins — he was crawling on his hands and knees to get the twins.
But, we know he lied. He never did that.
He simply abandoned Amber in the fire, along with the twins. Why? Maybe because he had no intention of saving them. Maybe, his intent was to murder them.
Amber was found, un-burned, except for her feet, in the master bedroom, alive. She later died of smoke inhalation. The fire never entered the master bedroom or the back of the house.
We will never know how much time Willingham had to save all of his children. But we do know, he never tried.
Why didn’t Willingham just grab Amber, run down the hallway and exit the house? Or go out the windows, with Amber, in the back, or the back door? She was alive when he left her. Maybe the twins were alive, too.
We, now, know, that he wasn’t stopping to save the twins. Why not save Amber? Maybe his intention was to murder her and them, not save anyone.
After Willingham left the house, he had plenty of time and plenty of doors and windows to got into where there was no fire, to, at least, save Amber. He had no intention of doing so. How do we know? Because he had every opportunity to do so and didn’t.
Willingham’s intention was to fabricate a heroic father, with burns, screaming and yelling, when an audience was there. “I have to save my children.”
He, later admits, he was never going into that house, not even at the beginning of the fire, not even when most of the house had no flames — which was the entire time of the fire.
No wonder he had no signs of smoke inhalation.
He is yelling and screaming, handcuffed to the fire truck, the desperate father, straining to get into the flames to save his babies. It was all a conscious, deliberate deception.
He says he had no such intentions of ever saving his children because he was a coward.
As his children are burning up, Willingham has the foresight, calmness and grotesque callousness to create an entire drama, a complete fraud and Willingham admitted it.
How about this? Willingham had no intention of rescuing his children because he was a murderer, not a coward.
Why couldn’t Grann make such a speculation? It doesn’t help the defense or the anti death penalty position.
Maybe my speculation is just based upon “I have little doubt” or “most likely”, you know, like Gerald Hurst’s.
(Note: I have emailed Hurst, twice, for clarification on his comments. So far, no reply.)
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p 17 “Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he was asked if he had any last words. He said, “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.”
REPLY: How profound. Do you think Grann left the following out on purpose?
Before Willingham received the lethal injection, he addressed Stacy Kuykendall, his ex-wife and mother of the three children he had killed, who was watching about 8 feet away through a window. He said “Fuck you bitch” and I hope you rot in hell, bitch.” He attempted to maneuver his hand, strapped at the wrist, into an obscene gesture.
Leaves you with a slightly different impression. Doesn’t it? Or what Grann didn’t want you to read.
Grann, for the defense. Maybe the whole article was written that way.
But worldwide media and anti death penalty activists (often the same) bought into it, without fact checking and without any additional knowledge. Why? Because they WANT to believe it and they want you to, as well.
Is that possible? Likely? Sure?
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NOTE: The final chapter in this case is, nowhere, close to being concluded.
(1) “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann, A Reporter at Large, The New Yorker, September 7, 2009
e‑mail email@example.com, 713 – 622-5491,
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C‑SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.