Tuesday, October 25, 2011

PBS Frontline weighs in on Willingham case in Texas, questioning Gov. Perry's conduct; what about justice based on "reputation"?

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, many PBS stations aired the Frontline special “Death by Fire” about the Todd Willingham case in Corsicana, TX.  I reviewed a film on the case (“Incendiary: The Willingham Case”) on my movie’s blog Oct. 4. ABC 20-20 had reported on the case May 4, 2010.

The main PBS link, which has a link to the whole film, is here

The PBS version says that the fire investigators ruled out arson by looking at the wiring in the house. 

Witnesses say that Willingham was in bars partying shortly after the incident, when others were trying to raise funds for his kids’ funeral.

One woman said that Todd did not get the benefit of the doubt because he didn’t show “normal respect” for his family.

Halfway through the hour film, PBS turns to the evidence.  A Gerald Hurst explains the newer science of fires and shows that the pattern in the house was that of a flashpoint, and probably not the result of a crime. In fact, he believed that the wiring was faulty. 

The journalist who was going to write about Willingham was badly injured in an auto accident and not able to continue.

Governor Rick Perry removed three members of a board that could have continued investigating the case.  The case keeps alive the debate on capital punishment, particularly since Texas uses it more than any other state. It could be an issue for Perry’s candidacy for the GOP nomination.

Once again, it appears that Willingham was executed because of faulty evidence that others believed because of his generally poor reputation in the community for character. Legally, he is entitled to a verdict based on the facts; if the fire was an accident (and it looks like it may well have been), he should not have faced prison let alone capital punishment. As a practical matter, he was punished for his bad reputation. This sounds like justice by ostracism in practice, something my mother always warned me about. 

Wikipedia attribution link to picture of Navarro Mills Lake, Texas, near Corsicana, which I visited in 1979 and other times when I lived in Dallas. The city is SE of Dallas, in what is called “East Texas”, a relatively low and flat area with lots of pine trees, like much of the deep South.

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