When there are no Mulligans

James E. Johnson Jr. • Dec 14, 2009

It keeps coming at me like the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Since I read the New Yorker article in September I have not been able to get beyond the story of Cameron Todd Willingham.

My mother always told me to put myself in someone else’s place as a way to a better empathize or understand what that person is going through. And yet I cannot come close to imagining what Cameron Todd Willingham was going through in his last moments.

Two days before Christmas in 1991, a fire rushed through the Willingham home and killed all three of Cameron Willingham’s daughters. According to some eye witness accounts, after Willingham escaped the fire, he made attempts to go back and rescue his daughters. He was restrained with handcuffs to prevent his reentry for safety reasons.

On January 8, 1992, Willingham was charged with murder. He was offered a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. He turned it down proclaiming his innocence. Instead he took his chance with the jury trial believing it would be acquitted of a crime he did not commit.

During the trial, the prosecution produced a number of witnesses to testify against Willingham. The most important witnesses included arson investigators and a jailhouse snitch. The fire investigators testified that the fire was arson-based on what is now described as junk science. The jailhouse snitch said that Willingham confessed to him while in jail; he has since recanted his testimony twice.

Willingham’s defense team did not put together much of a case, calling only two witnesses, one being a babysitter who says she didn’t believe that Willingham committed the crime. The case was given to the jury who took less time than it takes to finish the first half of a NFL football game, 77 minutes, to review all the evidence and come back with a guilty verdict.

Willingham was executed by lethal injection in February 2004 at the age of 36. His final statement was “Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime that I did not commit. I’ve been persecuted for 12 years for something that I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the earth shall become my throne.”

Since his execution numerous experts have looked at the evidence and determined that the fire was just a fire and not arson. However, many involved in prosecuting Willingham refused to admit a mistake was made and it is possible, or more likely probable, that an innocent man was put to death. Prosecutor Jackson said in an interview that he believed Willingham was guilty of arson because he listened to heavy metal which meant he could be a devil worshiper. Governor Rick Perry has chosen to continue the cover-up by replacing members of the investigative board when it began looking into whether Willingham’s case was botched.

As the evidence mounts that innocent people have been, and are being, convicted and punished for crimes they did not commit, whether by fraud or bad evidence, governments continue to embrace an irrevocable method of punishment.

If I put myself in Willingham’s place in those last moments would I have heard another axiom that my mom used when I was younger? “If you didn’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about”.

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