At the end of February 2004, I wrote a letter that would never be received. The intended recipient was Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas prisoner on death row. Months earlier, Willingham had written me a ten-page, hand-printed essay about his life in solitary confinement and his last experience in the open air. In it, he recalled a cluster of “blazing purple flowers,” the first he had seen in more than eight years.
The flowers were “gifts to the world,” he wrote, reminding him of his own gifts, which had been “taken away.” This was a reference to Willingham’s daughters, and herein lay some of my hesitation in replying. In 1991 he had been convicted of torching his house and burning to death his three girls: Amber, 2, and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron. Normally, I make only passing note of individual offenses–my interest is in prison conditions more than crime–but Willingham’s rap sheet struck me as so repugnant that I wasn’t sure how to respond.
When I finally got around to drafting my letter, I logged on to Texas’s offender locator service to verify the address and prisoner number, but the search came up blank. While I dithered, the State of Texas had taken Willingham outside one last time, transported him to Huntsville, strapped him to a gurney and killed him.
“I am an innocent man” were among Willingham’s last words, but almost no one believed him. I didn’t. My presumption of his guilt, in fact, mitigated my remorse for not having written back sooner. Almost a year later, however, an investigative feature in the Chicago Tribune revealed that Willingham had almost certainly been telling the truth.
At the trial, prosecutors had speculated that Willingham murdered his children so he would have more time to play darts and drink beer. Yet under scrutiny, this and other claims fell apart. A supposed confession turned out to be based solely on the word of a jailhouse snitch. An assessment of Willingham’s “future dangerousness” had been provided by Dr. James Grigson, nicknamed Dr. Death, who was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association in 1995 for declaring defendants psychopathic with reckless abandon. Most important, an independent fire expert contacted by defense attorneys, then a team of them convened by the Tribune, concluded there was no evidence of arson and that the state’s investigator had based his testimony on widely discredited junk science.
A preliminary report on the botched fire analysis had been provided to prosecutors, appellate judges and the governor in the weeks leading up to Willingham’s execution, but to no avail. Like his predecessor, Governor Rick Perry barely glanced at the file before giving his fatal nod. Confronted by reporters after the execution went forward, the district attorney (now a judge) stood by his work. “Does it give me pause?” he mused. “No it does not. I have no reservations.”
The same cannot be said, mercifully, of many other Americans. In recent years, cases like Willingham’s–which death penalty watchers say is one of the surest instances of what Sandra Day O’Connor once called a “constitutionally intolerable event,” the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person”–have opened a wide-ranging debate about wrongful convictions. Death row exonerations, in particular–now 127 and counting–have given rise to a nationwide network of innocence projects, which, in turn, have steadily turned up still more unjust convictions.