Would you oppose the death penalty if it were proven that Texas has executed an innocent man? If so, remember this name: Cameron Todd Willingham. He was innocent and Texas executed him. There are plenty of executed death-row inmates with strong claims of innocence, such as David Spence, Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna and Gary Graham. But the state of Texas has never admitted to killing an innocent person. Willingham’s case could become the first case in which the state of Texas will have to admit that it made
Willingham was executed for arson and murder in 2004. He professed his innocence until he was strapped down on the execution gurney, saying “I am an innocent man — convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”
Now, we know that he was telling the truth. In August, Craig Beyler, the investigator hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the Willingham case, released his report in which he found that “a finding of arson could not be sustained” by a scientific analysis. He concluded that the fire in the Willingham case was accidental and not arson. In fact, there was no arson, so there was no crime.
David Grann wrote a 16,000-word article for The New Yorker in which he discredited all the evidence used to convict and sentence Willingham. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project said, “After reading Grann’s report, fair-minded people will know beyond a reasonable doubt that an innocent person was executed.”
The proven execution of an innocent person should have resulted in a call by Gov. Rick Perry for a statewide moratorium on executions and a commission to conduct a comprehensive study of the Texas death penalty system. But shortly before a scheduled Texas Forensic Science Commission meeting to discuss this case, in a move that looks like an election-year cover-up, Perry replaced several members of the commission with his own political allies, including John Bradley, a tough-on-crime Williamson County defense attorney, as chairman. Bradley canceled the public hearing indefinitely, leaving the investigation in limbo.
Scott Cobb, director of the Texas Moratorium Network, said, “No matter how things turn out, people are looking at the death penalty in a new light. They’re thinking if it could have happened to Willingham, then it could happen to many other people.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 2006 that in the modern judicial system there has not been “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”
This Saturday, at the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty, people from all walks of life and all parts of Texas, the U.S. and other countries will gather at the Texas Capitol to raise their voices and shout out Todd Willingham’s name. The march is a gathering of activists, exonerated inmates and family members of the victims and those on death row.
Eugenia Willingham, mother of Todd Willingham, will be among the special guests at the march on Saturday at 2 p.m. on the South Steps of the Capitol.
On Friday, students can also join a panel discussion with exonerated death-row inmates Shujaa Graham and Curtis McCarty (7 p.m. in the Texas Union’s Sinclair Suite, Room 3.128).
I encourage everyone to attend the march to support the Willingham family as they fight to prove that Todd Willingham was innocent.
For more information and to sign a petition, visit camerontoddwillingham.com and marchforabolition.org.
Hedayati is a government and Middle Eastern studies senior and member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.