Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham's Real Last Words

I recently finished The Lost City of Z, David Grann's account of the British explorer Percy Fawcett's final journey in the Amazon basin, where Fawcett disappeared in 1925. Meticulously researched, staunchly reported and beautifully written, it covers the history of London's Royal Geographic Society, to which Percy belonged, and the 300-year quest for the mythical golden city, El Dorado, as well as the rubber trade and its effect on indigenous tribes who shoot six-foot arrows from seven-foot bows. And piranha, and electric eels and anacondas and poisonous insects that attack your eyes and maggots that fester under your skin and toothpick-sized parasite catfish that swim up your penis through your urethra, lodge themselves there with sharp spines, and kill you. It's basically like reading a 300-page Indiana Jones movie that teaches you important and incredible things about the world. It's the best book I read this year. (Don't worry, Brad Pitt's making it into a movie.) I picked it up after finishing Trial By Fire, Grann's story in The New Yorker that made the case that Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for murdering his three baby girls by arson, was innocent-that the fire was likely an accident. It's the best magazine article I read this year.

It ends like this: "Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he was asked if he had any last words. He said, 'The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.'"

A letter to the editor revealed that there was more to his last words than that, however.

Also back in October, but apparently, near-totally unnoticed, there was a post over on the legal blog Crime and Consequences that finally did print all of Willingham's final words. (That blog is a project of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which describes itself as "the only public interest law foundation in the nation working full time to strengthen law enforcement's ability to assure that crime does not pay." Its advisers include Edwin Meese III, who is also associated with the Heritage Foundation.)

They wrote:

That poignant end reads almost like a Hollywood script, doesn't it? He reasserts his innocence, and his very last words are religious. Fade to black. Well, Grann doesn't actually say those words are the very last, but that is certainly the picture the reader gets. And the statement as Grann reports it is consistent with what we might expect from a person who actually was innocent. Is Grann's report the truth? Yes, if one defines truth in the Clintonesque way of defensible as not literally false. Is it the whole truth?

(Yes, they couldn't resist bringing in "Clintonesque.")

After reading in a local paper that a witness to the execution said that there was more to Willingham's last words than Grann conveyed, Crime and Consequences' Kent Scheidegger contacted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to retrieve a full transcript. Here is what they sent him:

Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man-convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return-so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. I hope you rot in hell, bitch; I hope you fucking rot in hell, bitch. You bitch; I hope you fucking rot, cunt. That is it.

The witness believed the "bitch" in question was Willingham's ex-wife Stacy, the mother of his daughters.

Scheidegger takes Grann to task for depicting an execution scene more dramatically in line with the article's assertion of Willingham's innocence, and suggests that the omitted vitriol points to a possible motive in the case-something the prosecution struggled to establish in court.

"As incomprehensible as it seems," Scheidegger wrote, "we know that some fathers do kill their young children, and anger at the mother is one common reason."

Might Willingham have been guilty after all? I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the way Grann structured his ending, in light of Willingham's full statement-but I'm not content with Scheidegger's takeaway, either. Grann's story establishes that, after years of supporting Willingham as he waited on death row, Stacy had lost her faith.

Grann wrote:

He asked Stacy if his tombstone could be erected next to their children's graves. Stacy, who had for so long expressed belief in Willingham's innocence, had recently taken her first look at the original court records and arson findings. Unaware of Hurst's report, she had determined that Willingham was guilty. She denied him his wish, later telling a reporter, 'He took my kids away from me.'

Having your wife, who'd fought in your corner for so long, change her mind and convict you along with the powers-that-be-well, that's an experience that could easily bring out such a statement right before one is executed. Does knowing the full scope of his final statement change the way you feel about Willingham?

23 Comments / Post A Comment

sunnyciegos (#551)

It does seem like an egregious omission. I'll bet there's a sad, resigned factchecker at the New Yorker's office shaking his/her head right now.

KarenUhOh (#19)

The piece should report the entire statement if it's going to use it at all. Besides, the ambiguity it raises doesn't undercut the article's thesis–which is that the execution was a product of ignorance of reasonable doubt.

That stands or falls, for the fact-finder, based upon the post hoc science offered in opposition to the prosecution's case. None of that's changed by the accused's anger. Whether the outburst establishes motive for anything is wide open to interpretation.

Making for a better article.

I've never had feelings "about Willingham" one way or another; I never thought he was a prince among men. What I do have feelings about is a system that cheerfully puts a man to death based on tissue-thin "evidence". And no, reading his full statement doesn't change that feeling one iota. Only in some wingnut blogger's fevered brain could it possibly do so.

Legs Battaglia (#2,484)

This perfectly states my position. I don't see how Willingham's final words change the facts at all.

Dave Bry (#422)

Well put. Grann's piece has so much less to do with Willingham than it does with the clearly reasonable doubt left by the state. The last words serve as poetry, and maybe Grann took a liberal bit of license. (And certainly, the poetry worked. Powerfully.) But it doesn't affect the more relevant facts he established, the great flaws with the Texas judicial system, the great problem with the death penalty itselfâ€"the finality, the uncorrectability.

sunnyciegos (#551)

But it gives an opening to people like your wingnut blogger.

Dave Bry (#422)

Right. That is a problem. Don't get fancy when you've got the goods.

BananaBoat (#2,485)

Exactly. This sounds like a deflection of blame from the incompetent fire inspector & investigation. I'd go so far as to say that personalizing the story and character of Willingham is obstructing the facts even more. I get that sensational aspects draw attention to the case, but the incompetence and presumed guilt are the real story so let's focus on it! Ok?

HiredGoons (#603)


As opposed to "Cheneysque" which is just a bald-faced lie.

HiredGoons (#603)

Also: I am TOTALLY going to read this book!

It is awesome. It'll only take about a weekend to finish.

preferably laced with profanity.

hanna (#644)

Very well said, everyone up there.

The only thing reading his whole statement made me feel was the incredible mixture of bitterness, anger, helplessness, faux bravado, and fear he must have felt just before his life was ended.

balsa_wood (#465)

Yeah, I'm totally turned around now. It's astounding that a man, being put to death for a crime he didn't commit, might lash out with swear words at the ex-wife who turned her back on him.

Clearly, he's guilty.

brent_cox (#40)

I think the claim that calling someone bad names right before you get murdered by the State of Texas indicates motive is a stretch. And even if you grant the motive (which I don't), a motive does not obviate the criminally bad science of the initial arson investigators.

Sakurambobomb (#1,722)

"As incomprehensible as it seems," Scheidegger wrote, "we know that some fathers do kill their young children, and anger at the mother is one common reason."

So, perhaps the Reuters polar bear was angry at the baby polar bear's mother? That explains a lot!

Whew! So, no global warming!

-The Heritage Foundation

propertius (#361)

It also sounds oddly like the ending of Medea, except reversed as to gender.

If I were about to be put to death for a crime I didn't commit, I'm pretty sure a stream of invective would come out of my mouth that puts Willingham's outburst to shame.

TroutSavant (#1,990)

"Might Willingham have been guilty after all?"

As pointed out already above, Willingham's innocence was demonstrated pretty unequivocally by the evidence. Which isn't even the point, because in order to be convicted he needed to be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. His character is essentially irrelevant to the facts of the case, although his final words are certainly understandable.

brad (#1,678)

some people's definition of proof is frightening. i sat on a jury where the defendant was being charged under the felony homicide rule- a rule which applies a homicide charge to anyone who participates in a felony that results in death. it mattered not that the defendant didn't pull the trigger, he was a part of the crime so he was charged.

the state evidence was thin, but compelling. however, the prosecutor had to prove that the defendant knew his accomplices in a drug buy were planning to rob the other party. in my opinion, the DA failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did. 7 of the other 12 jurors agreed with me. it was 8, but an elderly woman changed her vote after finding out that a few others thought he was guilty. 'i didn't want to be the only one' she said.

the others offered their explanations and they all derivatives of the same argument- they just knew that the defendant knew it was going to be a robbery. they just knew it. he had to know. there was little evidence to point to this conclusion- they just knew it in their hearts.

it took about 6 hours of deliberation and careful conversation. they eventually changed their votes and we acquitted. some of them were extremely uncomfortable with my statement that he may have known- but the DA didn't prove it to the standards of guilt. the old woman was going to give some cookies she baked that day but never did.

they seemed uncomfortable with the notion of letting a potentially guilty man go free. but i didn't.

i don't know what that says about me.

Dave Bry (#422)

I think that says you're a good citizen, Brad.

brad (#1,678)

i didn't feel like a good citizen at that moment. a few of those jurors really seemed to loathe me. and i could understand it. the defendant was a piece of shit. a real bastard and society would have probably been better off if he had gone away for ever.

there was a serious temptation to do a little preventative justice in that jury room. a juror's brother had just been the victim of a crime. he asked us how we would feel if this guy were to go free and then kill one of our family members.

his emotion was very very real. it's easy to argue when you have little emotional investment in an issue. and that was my point to him and he thought i was a coward. it's an attitude i have encountered enough to see a pattern. some people really want wrongs to be righted. really really.

KenHouston (#3,022)

Mr. Dave Bry,

You state,

"He asked Stacy if his tombstone could be erected next to their children's graves … She denied him his wish, later telling a reporter, 'He took my kids away from me.'"

I am curious if Texas law prevents a parent to their biological children, from being buried next to or near them?

If parents are legally married in Texas and later divorced, can one of the parents prevent the other biological parent of children from being buried next to or near the children?

Does one parent get custody of the graves in a Texas divorce settlement and therefore allowed to make ultimate decisions on who is buried next to them?

While Mr. Willingham may have verbalized his anger towards his wife for not allowing his burial next to his three young children, her actions seem to provide us with possible insight about her thoughts and true motives.

In her mind, Mr. Willingham may have taken "her kids" away in the fiery deaths, but her actions seem like fuel from a vindictive, deceitful and hateful attitude towards her husband.

Anger has many faces and expressions. Some people openly verbalize their anger, like Mr. Willingham and some are like his wife, never openly express it, but keep it well hidden from the public waiting for the perfect moment to inflict the greatest fateful revenge imagined. She used it to inflict the greatest emotional pains, when the person they are anger at is at their weakest, dying moments. It almost seems like she makes an attempt to makes his pain eternal in his afterlife.

Did she provide the ultimate poisoning act by taking "his kids" away from him in his death and requested eternal resting place?

I am curious how she and her family will respond, if at some future date Mr. Willingham is posthumously proven innocent and pardoned by the State of Texas?

How will she act or feel when "Mr. Monster" as the Governor said is the iconic statue on the "Monument for Texas Criminal Injustice" in Austin?

How will she feel if as part of the "Monument of Texas Injustice," buried along with Mr. Willingham are his children?

The combination of imperfect laws of our land, the hidden emotions of human juries combined with over zealous human prosecutors, ironically convict innocent people. Sometimes, those who are guilty of crimes remain the least suspected and in plain sight.

I am curious.

Respectfully submitted,

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