The Plank

Presumed Guilty

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A few weeks ago, I posted a "Nightline" segment featuring an interview with John Jackson, the prosecutor in the death penalty case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham, who was almost certainly innocent, was nonetheless found guilty and executed by the state of Texas in 2004. The basis for the conviction was evidence given by arson investigators that was subsequently shown to be entirely unscientific. Confronted by correspondent Terry Moran, Jackson had this to say:

Moran: They say the conclusions reached by these [arson] investigators are not warranted by modern fire science and are based on primitive old wives' tales and folklore.

Jackson: That's not to say that they're not correct, though.

Moran: You sent a man to death on that.

Jackson: I'm comfortable with that.

Now, via Ta-Nehisi Coates, I see that Willingham's defense attorney, David Martin, has been interviewed by CNN's Anderson Cooper, and his belligerent insistence on Willingham's guilt is, if anything, more shocking than Jackson's blase acceptance of having sent a man to death on the basis of faulty evidence.

Martin, who is in no way a trained arson investigator--let alone a fire scientist--explains that he bought some carpet, poured lighter fluid on it, and set it aflame and it looked "just exactly like the carpet in Todd Willingham's house." On this basis, he concluded, "There was no question whatsoever he was guilty," adding, "That's why they found him guilty, I think, in under 30 minutes." (The quality of his defense  obviously couldn't have played a role.) Watch, and see how many times you have to remind yourself that this man was Willingham's defense attorney:

It continues to astonish. For anyone unfortunate enough to be charged with a capital crime and lacking the resources or reputation to defend themselves, the Texas justice system is essentially a well-lubricated execution machine: the overzealous prosecutors, the half-hearted (or in Martin's case, worse) defense attorneys, the slipshod investigators, the psychiatric "experts" who attest that every defendant is a criminal psychopath, the judges and juries and politicians--and ultimately, of course, the voters who don't seem to care. It is a national disgrace.

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