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Another Conundrum: Death By Fire

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

If anything personifies human tragedy, it is the conviction and execution of Cameron “Todd” Willingham. It also provides the perfect case study for what happens when detectives, district attorneys and even defense attorneys solve a crime with their guts, and not their brains. And that has a lot to say, as well, for my intelligence/evidence comparison.

Our story comes from another FRONTLINE article called, “Death by Fire”. (Why all the FRONTLINE linking? Because the show is amazing.) The facts: On the 23rd of December, 1991, a fire engulfed a house in Corsicana, Texas. Three children died inside while their father, Cameron "Todd" Willingham, escaped outside unharmed. After surveying the damage, and Willingham’s behavior after the fire, the police began a homicide investigation. The evidence came roaring in.

The lead investigator laid out the fundamental truth, “A fire doesn’t lie.” As they begin their investigation, the arson experts find a trove of evidence indicating that Willingham set fire to his house and killed his children. Even worse, the burn patterns on the floor resembled a pentagram, a satanic symbol.

The police then looked into Todd Willingham’s background. As a teen, he used drugs. Later, he had multiple run ins with the law for domestic violence. Worse, prosecutors found out he had a history of satanism, which explained the pentagram pattern of burn marks. At the trial, a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, testified Willingham was a severe sociopath. On top of all that came the most damning fact: Willingham was virtually unharmed by the fire that incinerated his children, and witnesses testified that he wouldn’t go back into his home to try to rescue his children. To top it off, a fellow inmate received a confession from Todd Willingham right before the trial began.

Ultimately, the state of Texas, after a lengthy appeals process, executed Todd Willingham.

Then, the Willingham execution became a case study in overzealous prosecution. As outside groups began looking into the Willingham case, the “hard” evidence used to put a “sociopath” behind bars crumbled like weak sand.

The satanism issue brought up by the prosecution fell first. It turns out Willingham listened to Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin, and as a teen owned their posters. That would make a quarter of the Army satanists. What about the psychiatrist who called Willingham a sociopath? It turns out he was nicknamed “Dr. Death” because he had testified in over a 150 different capital cases about “sociopaths who would murder again.” In this case, he never even interviewed Willingham.

And the jail house witness? He later recanted his story on two different occasions, and now claims he doesn’t remember what happened.

But the truly clinching evidence came from the arson experts. Americans love experts; if an expert claims that burn marks show evidence of arson, we will believe them. The tragedy of Todd Willingham’s case is that modern arson investigators don’t agree with the experts at the time.

In other words, a fire won’t lie, but the experts could. After Todd Willingham was convicted by the state of Texas, scientists radically transformed the field of arson investigation. How did they do this? By using the scientific method to analyze how fires burn. Before the Willingham case, arson investigators used hunches to prove their cases. After actual scientists started testing actual fires, the field transformed and many commonly held beliefs about arson disappeared. In the Willingham case, nine different arson forensic pathologists have analyzed the evidence; not a single one agrees with the original diagnosis of arson.

The people of Corsicana, the detectives investigating and the prosecutor prosecuting wanted to convict Todd Willingham. They believed he was guilty. They found the evidence to convict him. He’s not a sympathetic figure either: he beat his wife, struggled to hold a job, and took drugs. Being a bad person, though, doesn’t mean you should die.

Do we have this problem downrange, in Iraq and Afghanistan? Absolutely.

In our military targeting system, there is no adversary arguing for the accused. Todd Willingham could at least put up his own defense. He could hire an attorney. For a suspect in Iraq accused of making IEDs or a suspected terrorist in the Pakistani tribal region, no one argues his case. When the intelligence community targets insurgents or terrorists, it collects intelligence nee evidence just like the Willingham case. And often, the leaders want results, the way detectives and district attorneys want convictions.

The only good side to this story is that because of the development of modern arson investigations, the number of actual arson fires has plummeted by seventy percent, while the number of structure fires has remained steady. In other words, many fewer people are being wrongfully convicted of arson.

If you want to read more on this case, try The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune or The Innocence Project.

One comment

This story, and the one from Monday, just depresses me.