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.)
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.
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?