The Importance of Willingham’s Story



Dave Mann

Business was slow last week for the Contrarian — and by slow, I mean nonexistent. I was on vacation all week. But, alas, that’s over, and I’ll be posting regularly again this week.

While I was away, the Cameron Todd Willingham case became national news. Willingham, as most of you probably know by now, was executed in 2004 for allegedly killing his three children in a 1991 house fire in North Texas. Most arson experts believe he was innocent. I’ve been following the Willingham case while working on an investigative series about people wrongly convicted of arson.

This week’s New Yorker features a 16,000 word story on Willingham by David Grann. Lots of fascinating detail in the piece. Grann hits on many of the problems with Texas’ criminal justice system. (He also has a wonderful and spot on description of Gerald Hurst, an Austin-based arson expert I’ve been working with for my own stories.)

Grann was interviewed about the story on NPR’s All Things Considered last week. You can read the transcript or listen to the audio here. (During the interview, host Robert Siegel was kind of enough to give a shout out to my arson series in the Observer.)

The Willingham case is certainly important, especially for those campaigning against capital punishment. Texas — of all places — may become the first state to admit executing an innocent man. 

But the Willingham case is closed. It’s too late, I’m sad to say, to save him. There are other wrongly convicted people sitting in prison at this very moment whose cases need public attention. In that sense, I hope the national publicity over the Willingam case will inform people about the flaws in the criminal justice system and especially the problems with forensic arson cases.

Hurst believes that faulty arson forensics may have sent hundreds of innocent people to prison. There are nearly 800 Texans serving sentences for arson related crimes.

Those include Curtis Severns — the Plano gun shop owner serving a 27 year sentence in federal prison for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit. Read his story here.

And Ed Graf — a case Hurst describes as perhaps even more flawed than the one against Willingham. (The third story in the series will be out in our October 3 issue.)

It’s too late for Willingham. But perhaps the power of his story can help save many others.