David Grann on Cameron Todd Willingham and the Death Penalty (09/02/2009)
The New Yorker: Hello, and welcome to Ask the Author Live. David Grann are here with us to discuss his piece “Trial By Fire.” We’ll do our best to address as many questions as possible. Enjoy!
The New Yorker: We’re going to start with a question from Chris Mattsson, from Austin, Texas:

In the course of your reporting, did you encounter evidence of erroneous forensics methodology still being used in arson investigations today?

David Grann: Yes, without question. Though the problems are not as prevalent as they once were, many of the leading fire investigators told me that they still see cases similar to that of Willingham. And the problems go beyond arson science; often “experts” are allowed to testify in court about methods, such as the interpretation of bite marks or blood patterns, that have not been scientifically validated. A congressionally-mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences, which was recently published, noted that there is “a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods.”
[Comment From Sarah ]
How has your work on this article affected your view of the criminal justice system?
David Grann: It has had a profound effect on me. This is not an issue that I had previously investigated and the Willingham case revealed not only flaws in that particular case but also systemic failures–from the appeals process to the system of clemency.
[Comment From Luke ]
What is your stance on capital punishment?
David Grann: As I mentioned in my previous post, this was not an issue that I had ever focused on, at least not in any sort of intensive way. I did not have a strong opinion about the death penalty, and the prospect that someone like Timothy McVeigh might be executed was not something that kept me awake at night. But researching this story and coming to terms with the prospect that an innocent person might be executed has had profound impact on me.
The New Yorker: Paul O’Donohue writes in to ask:

Do you believe law enforcement officials that are complicit in soliciting testimony that they know is false should be open to charges of homicide, manslaughter or simply misconduct if the wrong person is executed by the state?

David Grann: Certainly, if a prosecutor or detective intentionally solicits testimony that is false and uses it to convict someone they should be held accountable in some form. The problem, in many cases, is much grayer: authorities, believing that a suspect is guilty, may subtly and unwittingly corrupt eyewitness testimony by revealing their suspicions openly or by coloring their questions. There have been countless studies done demonstrating how once witnesses suspect that a person is guilty, the brain may reconstruct the information to conform to the new data.
In one of the most famous cognitive studies, several people were shown clips of two cars colliding. The witnesses were then asked at what speed they thought the cars were traveling when the cars “contacted” each other. The average answer was about thirty one miles per house. When the interviewer asked the same question with the verb “smashed” instead of “contacted,” the witnesses’ average estimate for the cars’ speed rose to more than forty miles per hour. The questioner could even plant false memories depending on the verb he or she chose. For instance, when the questioner used the leading term “smashed,” more witnesses said that they had seen, in the video, the car windows shattering; in fact, the windows had not broken. So it is important that police procedures for taking witness testimony follow the best and most sound methodologies.
The New Yorker: Here’s another question: What was it like writing about Cameron Todd Willingham. That is, someone you had never met?
David Grann: As a reporter, I am used to following people who are alive and documenting their experience, or calling them up on the telephone. In this case, I obviously could not do that. But during the course of my research I was able to track down Willingham’s correspondence, his diaries, his messages—or “kites”—between prisoners. I also relied on interviews with those he knew as well as court transcripts. In many ways, by the end I felt like I had better understanding of Willingham than most subjects I cover: his private writings, in particular, provided a frank and uncensored view of his innermost thoughts.
[Comment From Melissa ]
Hi — I’m curious. How is Elizabeth Gilbert doing today?
David Grann: Elizabeth Gilbert is one of the most indomitable individuals I’ve ever met. Most doctors believed she would never have any movement from the neck down, but she has undergone endless rehabilitation and gained motion in her arms and upper body. She recently learned how to drive in a special vehicle. I spoke to her last night and she is doing well, and is grateful that more people are getting to know Willingham and his case.
The New Yorker: David, how long did it take you to do this story?
David Grann: As you can tell from these postings, I am very, very, very slow. This story, in particular, took a long time to do. I began the story back in December and worked on it since, with a brief hiatus in March when I was on book tour for “The Lost City of Z.” It was hard to track down some of the people in the Willingham story, and I didn’t locate the jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, until several weeks ago.
[Comment From Reader ]
What can be done to fix the lack of scientific validation of the forensic methods per the report you mentioned?
David Grann: There are people who are better qualified to answer this than I. But many of the experts I spoke to mentioned several potential ways to improve the system. They include stricter certification and standardized ttraining for fire investigators; more resources for court-appointed lawyers to investigate their clients’ cases; greater oversight of forensic labs and forensic methodologies; and clemency boards that are required to carefully and openly review and deliberate each case. Congress is holding important hearings in a few days to discuss the recent report from the National Academy of Sciences revealing the problems in forensic techniques used in criminal cases; the hearings should highlight potential reforms.

[Comment From Jarcin ]
What are you thoughts on Judge Jackson’s rebuttal in the Corsicana Daily Sun, where he lists 7 ‘”facts” that maintain Willingham’s guilt? Do you find them at all credible?
David Grann: I saw Jackson’s op-ed, which came out before my article was published. I investigated the points he cites, and found, for a host of reasons, that they were not credible. I plan to respond to his points later in detail on the New Yorker news desk blog.
[Comment From Guest ]
How does Willingham’s ex-wife feel about his guilt or innocence now? In your story, the last I think we learned is that she denied his burial request, so I’m curious how she feels/what she thinks now.
David Grann: I am equally curious, but I have not heard from her yet and do not know the answer.
[Comment From Kathleen ]
Has Dr. Hurst continued to work on other cases of suspected arson?
David Grann: Yes, he is working on several now.
[Comment From Ben ]
Why do you think the prosecution still tries to profile a suspect for tatoos and liking bands like Iron Maiden and Led Zepplin?
David Grann: I don’t know why, but to me this was one of more shocking parts of the case. How many kids have Led Zepplen posters?
The New Yorker: Many readers are wondering, what was the hardest part for you to write in the piece?
David Grann: It was hard for me to learn about the fire science and then try to describe it as clearly as possible. But it was probably hardest to write the ending.
The New Yorker: That’s all for today. Thank you, David. And thank you, everyone, for participating and reading. We hope you’ll return for more. Visit newyorker.com next week for a live chat with Sasha Frere-Jones.
David Grann: Thanks so much for all your thoughtful questions. I’m sorry not to get to more of them and I appreciate your patience with my slow typing. I was not cut out to be a blogger!

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