The Dallas Morning News’ Texas Death Penalty blog has a guest column today by Nina Morrison, a Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project. She rebuts the arguments made last week by Judge John Jackson, who was one of the prosecutors for Navarro County in the Cameron Todd Willingham case.
Jackson embarrassed himself last week in a column he wrote in the Corsicana Daily News claiming “the trial testimony you reported in 1991 contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report”. He wrote his article in response to the state-funded report by Dr Craig Beyler that said “a finding of arson could not be sustained” under scientific analysis. The 16,000 word New Yorker article, which came out after Jackson’s article, also contains information that counters Jackson’s column, so be sure to read the New Yorker article.
Here is what Nina Morrison says about Jackson:
The truth is that all of the evidence that Jackson and his colleagues used to convict Willingham has been disproven. In the five years since Willingham was executed, several investigations – including an exhaustive report in the New Yorker this week – deconstruct all of the evidence and show that he was innocent.
Jackson himself now admits that the forensic case supporting the arson theory is “undeniably flawed” but he clings to the idea that Willingham was guilty, focusing on seven other points and shading each of them to conceal the truth:
1. Jackson claims Willingham beat his wife when she was pregnant in an attempt to end her pregnancies. In fact, Willingham’s wife has denied this and also told investigators he would never hurt his children.
2. Jackson claims Willingham’s burns were so minor that they must have been self- inflicted to fake evidence of trying to save his family. In fact, scientific experts have conducted experiments with identical fires and Willingham’s burns are normal for this type of fire.
3. Jackson claims medical tests show Willingham didn’t inhale smoke and thus didn’t try to rescue his family. In fact, Willingham tried desperately to go back into the house but firefighters physically restrained him.
4. Jackson claims Willingham refused to take a polygraph examination. This is true, but it is by no means evidence of guilt. Defense attorneys routinely advise their clients not to take polygraphs because they have proven unreliable (which is why they are not admissible in court).
5. Jackson likens Willingham to “violent sociopaths.” In fact, a prosecution expert who testified that Willingham was a “sociopath” was expelled from his professional association just three years later for unethical behavior, including making diagnoses without examining people. Willingham’s former probation officer and a judge both directly refute any notion that he was a sociopath.
6. Jackson claims Willingham meant to kill only his twins, citing the origin of the fire in their room and a witness who supposedly heard him whisper to his older daughter’s body that she wasn’t supposed to die. In fact, even the experts at Willingham’s trial admitted that they could not detect chemicals showing arson in the twins’ room. A grieving father telling his dead daughter that she wasn’t supposed to die is not evidence of guilt.
7. Jackson claims that a refrigerator in the house was pushed against a door, implying that Willingham moved it to trap the children inside. In fact, the refrigerator was covering a back door because there were two refrigerators in the small kitchen. The police detective and the fire chief who handled the case both now say that the refrigerator’s location does not support the theory that the fire was arson.
Incredibly, Judge Jackson concludes that "I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals." This is simply not possible. Without any evidence of arson, there is no evidence of a homicide at all — just an awful fire. Just a tragic accident. I'm surprised that anyone trained in the law would write such a statement.
Judge Jackson's arguments are less than weak, and nothing he says to "prove" the guilt of Willingham could possible be accepted as credible evidence in a court of law. Judge Jackson seems to be grasping at straws and irrationally determined to show that he bears no responsibility for what now appears to be the execution of a totally innocent person. If I were in his place, and had inadvertently sent an innocent man to his death, I too, would probably be eager to deny any wrong doing. However, faced with overwhelming forensic evidence that the fire was accidental, Judge Jackson should bite the bullet and admit that a terrible injustice was done.