When the state murders people

I'm a little bit late to this story as compared to most of the commentariat, but this past weekend afforded the first opportunity for me to read the horrifying story in The New Yorker about Cameron Todd Willingham. If the article (which is meticulously reported) is to be believed, the state of Texas executed an innocent man in February of 2004.

As I have said at some time or another, I am not a strident opponent of capital punishment per se. Philosophically, I feel that certain crimes, by their cruelty, depravity or scope, cause those who commit them to forfeit their right to live. (I'm thinking of crimes of the Richard Speck/Timothy McVeigh variety.) While I understand the arguments made by death penalty opponents about vengeance, mercy, etc., I cannot find within myself the inclination to protest when society enacts its ultimate punishment in such cases. However, given that there is no recourse when "the system" fails, I believe it is better to be a de facto opponent of the death penalty than to admit the possibility of executing the innocent.

Willingham's case illustrates how badly our system of justice can fail. There is much to abhor in his story, not least of which is the cavalier manner in which the Board of Pardons and Paroles handled his request for clemency when genuine doubts about the facts of his case had surfaced. If one believes that it is just to execute the guilty, then one must also believe that our system is just. Clearly, there is enough potential for injustice in our criminal justice system to make support for the death penalty untenable.

It is also clear that Willingham was the victim of his poverty. Had he had access to quality representation, it seems far less likely that he would have been executed. Again, one cannot support capital punishment in a system when the poor are represented by the overworked, uninterested or incompetent.

I would like to direct my most heated invective at the "medical" "experts" the prosecution used to bolster their case:

The prosecution cited such evidence in asserting that Willingham fit the profile of a sociopath, and brought forth two medical experts to confirm the theory. Neither had met Willingham. One of them was Tim Gregory, a psychologist with a master’s degree in marriage and family issues, who had previously gone goose hunting with Jackson, and had not published any research in the field of sociopathic behavior. His practice was devoted to family counselling.

At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60—a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s house—and asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.” Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depicting—it reminds me of something like Hell. And there’s a picture—a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel. . . . I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”

The other medical expert was James P. Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist. He testified so often for the prosecution in capital-punishment cases that he had become known as Dr. Death. (A Texas appellate judge once wrote that when Grigson appeared on the stand the defendant might as well “commence writing out his last will and testament.”) Grigson suggested that Willingham was an “extremely severe sociopath,” and that “no pill” or treatment could help him. Grigson had previously used nearly the same words in helping to secure a death sentence against Randall Dale Adams, who had been convicted of murdering a police officer, in 1977. After Adams, who had no prior criminal record, spent a dozen years on death row—and once came within seventy-two hours of being executed—new evidence emerged that absolved him, and he was released. In 1995, three years after Willingham’s trial, Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for violating ethics. The association stated that Grigson had repeatedly arrived at a “psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts.”

"Neither had met Willingham." And yet, both were willing to testify in a case that could very well (and did) cost a man his life. A more revolting abdication of professional responsibility I have not seen in quite some time. Whatever divine retribution falls of those whose indifference leads to the deaths of others, may it fall heavily upon them.

The story, which is worth reading in its entirety, is a damning indictment of a wholesale failure of justice. It comes to a close with the following wryly optimistic statement:
There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”
Perhaps I am biased against the Great State of Texas, but it seems that they are far too in love with their manner of executing their criminals for them to ever make a confession so dire.

Update: The prosecutor in the original case (now, tragically, a judge) offers a defense of his work, to which the author of the article responds.


  1. I'm pretty much in agreement. Capital punishment ought to be reserved for heinous crimes of murder. And the standards of proof ought to be extremely high. None of this "psychological profile" witch-doctor stuff; we ought to require hard, incontrovertible evidence before even opening the possibility of a death sentence.

    OTOH, if we run a prison system, we do so knowing with certainty that innocent men are condemned to spend the best years of their lives behind bars due to error and miscarriage of justice. I'm not sure that an innocent put to death is much worse than an innocent imprisoned for 40 years.

  2. Well, in theory one can release someone (even after 40 years) if they are exonerated. Not so with a corpse.

  3. wow, gj actually started a reasonable post and ended it with silliness. In Texas wrongfully imprisoned people are being compensated (sometimes to the tune of over a million dollars), they can live to see their name rehabilitated and live out their life in some measure of dignity and comfort.
    I can not begin to imagine the horror and shame of dying for a crime one did not commit.


  4. Hi, charo. Thanks for a civil reply. I can respond to that.

    Compensation can't really replace what was lost. I'm not willing to sell even a couple of years of my life for a million dollars, let alone live in prison for that time as well, and I doubt you would either. Also, long term incarceration leaves a deep mark, according to what I've read. As the saying goes, you can't go home again.

    A name can be rehabilitated even if the person is dead, but I'll grant it must be gratifying to live to see vindication.

    Finally, there is no horror or shame to the dead.