So Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?


Last month, I wrote about new questions in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas for setting a fire that killed his two children. Nine forensic fire experts have since come forward to say that the fire marshall who testified in Willingham's case had no idea what he was talking about. The most recent expert to review the case, for example, said the marshall's findings were "nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."

I wrote at the time that it was tough to say Willingham was innocent, only that he should never have been convicted. But in an in-depth investigation published in last week's New Yorker, David Grann makes a compelling case that Willingham didn't set the fire. Grann also participated in a follow-up chat, and answered criticism of his article—convincingly, I think—on the New Yorker's blog.

So what now? I'm opposed to the death penalty, but mostly because I have little faith in the government to administer it competently. So I've never much doubted that one or more states have executed innocent people. There has long been a sentiment among death penalty opponents that proof of an executed innocent would turn public opinion on the death penalty. I'm pessimistic that's going to happen. But it does raise the question for supporters of capital punishment: Does Willingham's case make you rethink your position? If not, how many more cases of an executed innocent person would it take to make you change your mind?