Monday, September 14, 2009

John Jackson Defends Executing an Innocent Man

The prosecutor who sent the innocent Todd Willingham to the death chamber has written a piece claiming that Willingham's guilt was never in doubt. John Jackson is now a judge; it's well-known that getting a death penalty conviction is good for your chances of a judgeship. Here is his response, along with my comments in bold:

(08-28-09) JACKSON: Guest Commentary - Willingham guilt never in doubt

By the Hon. John Jackson, Guest Columnist
(Originally published Aug. 28, 2009)

The Corsicana Daily Sun missed a golden journalistic opportunity on Thursday by merely reprinting the AP article with respect to the Cameron Todd Willingham murder case. The Daily Sun is in possession of its compete reportage of the early '90's trial and is in a much better position to examine the actual trial evidence elicited.

The Willingham trial has become a sort of cause celebre by anti-death penalty proponents because it seems to be an example of outmoded scientific techniques which led to a miscarriage of justice. In fact, the trial testimony you reported in 1991 contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.

Always omitted from any examination of the actual trial are the following facts:

1. The event which caused the three childrens' deaths was the third attempt by Todd Willingham to kill his children established by the evidence. He had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages;

This is not a fact. There was no testimony or evidence that he was tying to do that. Jackson is literally making this up. He admitted that he struck his wife. It's inexcusable. But all the evidence shows that he loved his kids. His wife even testified to this fact.

2. The “well-established burns” suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself;

So the fact that he had superficial burns means he set the fire? Yes, they were "so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted" if you've already decided that he had tried to kill his kids! Otherwise, you would just think he hadn't been burned badly. And while it may "suggest" something to Jackson, that is not a fact.

3. Blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the homicide revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke, contrary to his statement which detailed “rescue attempts;

Blood-gas analysis is horseshit. If Jackson knew anything about fire investigating, he would realize this. Or maybe he does, and pretends he doesn't. Furthermore, a lack of smoke at this point in the fire is completely consistent with Beyler's report.

Willingham originally claimed that he tried hard to save his daughters; that he went into the room repeatedly. There have been many inconsistencies with this story. Later, when he was on death row, he admitted that he had made some of that up so people would not wonder why he didn't do more.

When he made this little white lie up, he was not a suspect. He couldn't have imagined that he would become a suspect. And he probably felt guilty for not being able to save his kids- experts have said that people often feel that way-that they can't understand why they can't make themselves go into the heat.

4. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination. Such opportunity was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner;

Two points here: Polygraphs are notoriously inaccurate- no one in their right mind would take the prosecution up on this. They are not allowed at trial as evidence for this reason. Jackson surely knows this, and yet he is now offering Williingham's standard refusal to take one as evidence of guilt. Note that he doesn't have a polygraph that indicates Willingham is guilty. He believes that the refusal to take one is evidence in itself.

The second point is that Jackson, incredibly, is using Willingham's impolite demeanor, when declining the polygraph, as evidence of guilt! In other words, Jackson had his feelings hurt!

If I had just lost my children in a house fire, which I had nothing to do with, and then was asked to take a polygraph test to prove my innocence, I believe I would have told the DA to go fuck off. It would not be evidence of guilt

5. Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. His violent nature was further established by evidence of his vicious attacks on animals which is common to violent sociopaths;

None of these things are particularly relevant. Lots of people are violent. It does not mean they are likely to burn their children alive. And if he was truly violent, you would expect him to use physical violence against his children, instead of trying to kill them with a fire.

6. Witness statements established that Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, “You're not the one who was supposed to die.” (The origin of the fire occured in the infant twins bedroom) and;

People remember they hear all sorts of things when they've been told someone killed their kids. And as Grann points out in his rebuttal, Willingham could just as well have been saying that he, Willingham, was supposed to die; that he wished he could have traded places with her. Who knows? It was completely ambiguous. It is exactly the kind of evidence that should be disallowed, because it's prejudicial hearsay which is completely open to all sorts of interpretation.

7. Any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.

The state's own investigator said that this was irrelevant. And Grann says that Jackson himself said, when he was first researching the story, that this was not a huge factor. Why is he bringing it up now?

Co-counsel Alan Bristol and I offered Willingham the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty in return for a sentence of life imprisonment. Such offer was rejected in an obscene and potentially violent confrontation with his defense counsel.

So Jackson offers Willingham life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Willingham's incompetent attorney advises him to take the deal, because he has no idea how to defend a death penalty case. Willingham tells his attorney to go to hell. And Jackson considers this evidence of his guilt? It's incredible to see a judge write words like this in a newspaper column. That statement alone should have him removed.

The Willingham case was charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status. I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. While anti-death penalty advocates can muster some remarkably good arguments, Todd Willingham should not be anyone's poster child.

At this point, I don't really give a damn about what Jackson is convinced about. As he says, his critics have mustered some remarkably good arguments, and Jackson has failed to refute any of them.

This man played an instrumental role in executing an innocent person, a person who had already suffered the tragedy of losing his children in a fire. He is trying to duck responsibility for that homicide (this is not hyperbole; homicide was listed on Willingham's post-execution death certificate) by repeating the same lies over and over. He clearly has no interest in the factual guilt or innocence of Willingham; he just wants to save his own skin.

I hope I never end up in his court room.

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