As Burka Goes, So Goes the State

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Paul Burka at the Monthly wrote a post late yesterday about the governor’s race and the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

(As you probably know, Willingham was a likely innocent man executed in 2004.)

Most of the post is standard political fare. But half way through, Burka writes this rather amazing sentence (italics are mine):

Perry’s tendency to pour gasoline on the fire — a poor metaphor, I realize, given the nature of the crime Willingham committed — keeps getting him into trouble.

When I first read this, I assumed — given that the forensic evidence in the case has been debunked, and the leading fire experts in the country believe the fire was accidental — that Burka had simply slipped up and used poor wording (which we’ve all done too many times.)

But when he was called out in the comments section, Burka stood his ground about Willingham:

Willingham was convicted of capital murder for committing arson. There is clearly room for doubt, but the record says that he committed arson.

I’m sorry, Paul, but this is intellectual cowardice.

It not only parrots Gov. Rick Perry’s argument about Willingham, but ignores the overwhelming evidence that there was never any arson in the first place (no arson, no crime).

Has Burka read the New Yorker story? Or the original Chicago Tribune story from five years ago (the headline of which is: “Man Executed on Disproved Forensics”)?

There’s a reason this has become a media firestorm, and it’s not because of gripes from anti-death penalty activists.

Unfortunately this case has become politicized, as Grits rightly noted a few weeks ago. It’s unfortunate that the most important part of the Willingham case — the problems with forensic arson evidence — is getting lost amid the screams of Culture Warriors on both sides. I suspect Burka now views the Willingham case that way — as a “left” and “right” issue. So he chooses to sidestep it by hiding behind the “record.” Willingham was convicted, so that means he did it.

Burka seems to think that just because someone is convicted of a crime, that means they committed the crime.

That simply isn’t the case. The majority of people convicted in Texas are probably guilty as sin. But there are, sadly, quite a few people who have been wrongly convicted.

If Paul Burka doubts that, he should call any of the nearly two dozen convicts exonerated by DNA evidence in Dallas County alone. Or he should talk to Tim Cole’s family.

Again, this is intellectual cowardice, and it reveals the kind of thinking that has resisted reforms to the criminal justice system.

Of course, there is no DNA in the Willingham case. But the flawed forensic evidence is nearly as good. The Willingham case should show us that our criminal justice system is making too many mistakes, that reforms are needed. Instead it’s become the same tired debate about the death penalty, and that’s a shame.

Because I suspect that a lot of people in Texas think just as Burka does on this issue. You hear it from people all the time: “Well, he was convicted in a court of law.”

Until we change that mindset, until more Texans realize that some innocent people are convicted, I doubt we will ever fix the flaws in the system.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

Published at 12:00 am CST
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