A little over a month ago, The New Yorker ran a little investigative story by David Grann about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been accused of setting fire to his house and killing his three daughters inside in 1991. Now The New York Times has taken up a Texas death sentence beat, and we have little doubt that Grann’s piece has something to do with it.
The chilling tagline “Did Texas execute an innocent man?” made it pretty easy to toil through the 17-page feature. More chilling than the tagline was the actual story, which contained years of research on the case. Page after page, as more evidence was laid out, sympathy for Willingham heightened, while the Texas prosecutors were increasingly (and embarrassingly) discredited.
The most poignant part of the five part piece is when Willingham’s petition for clemency is denied by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, four days before he was scheduled to die. The reader has (and we imagine Willingham had) high hopes that the petition would be approved by the Board, because it contained a report by Dr. Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and evidently, a genius on fire. His credentials include a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University, a career as “the chief scientist on secret weapons programs for several American companies,” and inventing the “Mylar balloon, an improved version of Liquid Paper, and Kinepak, a kind of explosive that reduces the risk of accidental detonation.” Because of his “extraordinary knowledge of fire and explosives,” he inevitably became the go-to guy for civil litigators trying to determine the cause of a fire.
This is all pretty impressive, since “Many arson investigators, it turned out, had only a high-school education. In most states, in order to be certified, investigators had to take a forty-hour course on fire investigation, and pass a written exam.” And here was Dr. Hurst, a mad scientist who lived, breathed, and spent a lifetime working with fire, who after investigating the arson evidence against Willingham, believed in his innocence enough to take up his cause pro-bono.
Sadly, Hurst’s hurried efforts to save Willingham were unsuccessful, and after spending 12 years in prison, he was executed on February 17, 2004.
The New Yorker is one of the few sources that has mentioned Cameron Willingham since 2004 (besides this August Chicago Tribune review of the case hidden in the Science section), until yesterday, when this article ran in the National section of The New York Times. In “Controversy Builds in Texas Over an Execution,” James McKinley Jr. reports:
Questions about whether Gov. Rick Perry allowed the execution of a man some arson experts say may have been innocent, and then hindered an investigation into the evidence, continue to reverberate across Texas, where issues surrounding capital punishment have rarely stirred such controversy.
On Sunday, Mark White, who as governor himself was a strong death penalty supporter, said he believed that the state should reconsider capital punishment because, among other reasons, there was too great a risk of putting innocent people to death.
We questioned the effectiveness of long form journalism a little while ago, but it looks like Grann’s lengthy New Yorker piece has done two remarkable things for its fallen subject – it has caused politicians, namely two Texas governors, to speak out about his case and reevaluate policy effectiveness, and has also brought the general issue of the death penalty to mainstream national attention via The New York Times.
In fact, the Death Penalty in Texas seems to be a new beat for them. Today, at the the bottom of (but no less on) A1, sits a profile piece by Richard Pérez-Peña about Michael Graczyk, an AP reporter who covers death penalty cases in Texas, and has witnessed over 300 executions since the eighties. The piece makes no mention of Willingham, but perhaps this is a good thing, further removing the death penalty issue from the lens of an unusual feature story, and bringing it into the scope of a national dialogue.
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