The History Blog

Past and Present

A New View of the Death Penalty


The current New Yorker features a fascinating examination of a Texas death penalty case by reporter David Grann. Convicted on the basis of faulty forensic evidence, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for the deaths of his three daughters Now forensic experts are convinced that the fire which caused the children’s deaths in 1991 resulted from an accident, not the act of arson that the Texas courts claimed during Willingham’s trial. Willingham, who was poor, could not afford the lawyers or investigators who might have challenged the state’s flawed case earlier.

There are two particularly troubling aspects to this case. The first, of course, is the strong possibility that an innocent man was executed. The flaws in the Texas legal system are equally disturbing. Willingham lacked the means to mount an effective defense, and the legal machinery in the state provided no meaningful assistance to stop the momentum of execution. The case also brings to light the willingness of police and prosecutors to rely on faulty witnesses, jailhouse snitches, and disreputable “experts” on science. If we all know that our legal system is not about justice, this case brings that into painful view yet again. (MM)

(Read the New Yorker article, “Trial by Fire” by David Grann, at

Categories: General