Read David Grann’s article on Cameron Todd Willingham. It is long, but it is certainly worth reading in full.
Then ask yourself the following question: Is it possible that Texas may have sent an innocent man to death?
If you so much as hesitate before answering, then consider that whatever your disposition on the issue of the death penalty, the administration of the penalty may–to say the least–leave a lot to be desired. It is, of course, entirely possible that Grann may have written his story in a one-sided manner, that he left out key facts solidifying Willingham’s guilt, and that Willingham was indeed guilty of arson and murder. But if he didn’t, and the case against Willingham was as full of holes as Grann’s story suggests it was, then we are confronted with a veritable crisis in our justice system.
I know that it is easy for death penalty supporters to dismiss Grann’s article, and to believe that the state of Texas got its man. There is a lot invested in that belief; no supporter of the death penalty–and I count myself as one who believes that there are certain crimes for which execution is an appropriate response–wants to think that any innocent person has been sent to his/her death. But the fact of the matter is that DNA evidence has exonerated a number of people who were on death row. While that is reassuring, the fact that innocent people were sentenced to die is scary to contemplate. Just as scary is the fact that there are plenty of crimes for which DNA evidence cannot be used to establish guilt or innocence, leading to situations in which the prosecution and the defense may be operating blind. In such situations, the defense may not be able to resort to scientific evidence to be able to establish the innocence of the accused, a handicap which–along with the presence of overworked and underqualified legal representation that may not care in the slightest about the fate of the defendant–may lead to findings of guilt even though the defendant is innocent of the crime charged.
Those who believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent against crimes, or is an appropriate response to the commission of certain heinous crimes should not shy away from reading about Cameron Todd Willingham, or his eventual fate. Rather, they should be the first to read his story, and to wonder whether or not Texas caused an innocent man to be executed. Death penalty supporters should be the first to demand–loudly–that the system contain a whole host of failsafe devices designed to ensure that the right person is convicted for the crimes he/she is accused of committing.
Of course, the prime reason for such vigilance from death penalty supporters would be to make certain to the greatest degree possible that no innocent person ends up on death row. But death penalty supporters should also be vigilant in order to reform the system and make it work right, instead of letting death penalty opponents use the lack of reform as an excuse to abolish the penalty altogether.