Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row. Photo by Ken Light
Just finished reading an absolutely captivating piece by David Grann in the New Yorker. The article, entitled “Trial By Fire,” documents the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was convicted and later executed for killing his three children in an apparent case of arson. Grann’s article, however, reexamines the case to show that Willingham was the vicitm of a railroading of epic proportions, from poor defense attorneys, questionable evidence, and a less-than-reliable jailhouse informant. In one startling bit of testimony, the prosecution argued that the posters of heavy metal bands Willingham hung on his walls were evidence that he was a sociopath.
At one point, [prosecutor] Jackson showed [expert witness] Gregory Exhibit No. 60—a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s house—and asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.” Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depicting—it reminds me of something like Hell. And there’s a picture—a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel. . . . I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”
The other medical expert was James P. Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist. He testified so often for the prosecution in capital-punishment cases that he had become known as Dr. Death. (A Texas appellate judge once wrote that when Grigson appeared on the stand the defendant might as well “commence writing out his last will and testament.”) Grigson suggested that Willingham was an “extremely severe sociopath,” and that “no pill” or treatment could help him. Grigson had previously used nearly the same words in helping to secure a death sentence against Randall Dale Adams, who had been convicted of murdering a police officer, in 1977. After Adams, who had no prior criminal record, spent a dozen years on death row—and once came within seventy-two hours of being executed—new evidence emerged that absolved him, and he was released. In 1995, three years after Willingham’s trial, Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for violating ethics. The association stated that Grigson had repeatedly arrived at a “psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts.”
Furthermore, witness testimony by arson experts, which was not available to Willingham at the time of his trial, proved that the fire that claimed his three children was accidental. Despite mountains of evidence detailing Willingham’s innocence, his appeals were dismissed.
This is an incredibly well-written article and I highly suggest that if you have a little extra time that you give it a read. Grann does a remarkable job recreating the case and piecing this heart-wrenching story back together in amazing detail. Do yourself a favor and read this one.
Update – Slate did a follow-up to Grann’s and how it relates specifically to the use of the death penalty. [Article]