Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

September 3, 2009

(09-03-09) GUEST COMMENTARY: No arson means no crime occurred

By Victor Steinbok, lawyer and independent researcher

I am very puzzled by Mr. Jackson’s column on the Cameron Todd Willingham’s case and by the Daily Sun’s willingness to print it. The column does not try to contradict the findings of the Texas Forensic Science Commission — it can’t. Mr. Jackson is presenting the impossible case that even if Mr. Willingham could not have been convicted of arson — as there was no evidence to support the theory that the fire was set — he still should have been convicted of murder and executed. This claim is like trying to convict someone of murder by firearm when there is absolutely no evidence that he has ever held a gun in his life or ever tried to procure one.

But Mr. Jackson does not stop with the claim alone. He cites seven “facts” in support of the conviction. Unsurprisingly, none of the “facts” have any bearing on the case, even if Mr. Jackson reports them accurately. Mr. Jackson is using his status in the community and in the legal profession to protect a conviction that should not stand.

The first claim may be the strongest. If indeed Mr. Willingham had attempted to kill his children twice before the fire, it may go to establish a pattern. But such pattern is only valid if there is actual evidence that the children were murdered — no arson, no murder. To make matters worse, Mr. Jackson “supports” this claim with a reference to “attemp[ing] to abort both pregnancies”. He further buttresses it by pointing out, in claim (5), that Mr. Willingham was “a serial wife abuser” of “violent nature” and prone to “vicious attacks on animals.”

But in his attempt to paint a “violent sociopath,” Mr. Jackson arrives at a contradiction — if Mr. Willingham was impulsive and violent, murder by arson — which requires premeditation and careful planning — would have been quite uncharacteristic. Mr. Jackson was a prosecutor on the case, not an expert forensic psychologist. The conclusions of claims (1) and (5) are irrelevant and nonsensical.

In claims (2) and (3), Mr. Jackson disparages Mr. Willingham’s initial claim that he attempted to rescue his children — a claim that was collaborated by witnesses who were first on the scene. In fact, Mr. Jackson baselessly attacks the credibility of one of the nation’s foremost experts, Dr. Craig Beyler, but mockingly referring to “well-established burns.” In fact, according to a Dallas Morning News article, Dr. Beyler wrote that “evidence of the burns Willingham suffered were well-documented, including scorch marks on his hands, singed hair on his chest and head, and a burn on his shoulder.” Dr. Beyler, along with eight other top forensic scientists in the nation recruited to investigate the case came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of arson.

But even if we except that the evidence in (2) and (3) suggests, as some neighbors had claimed, that Mr. Willingham did not sufficiently attempt to rescue his children from the raging fire, this would merely paint him as a less foolishly heroic figure than he tried to portray himself initially. This may be evidence of humiliation and despondency over the inability to save the children, but not of guilt. There can be no doubt that Mr. Willingham attempted to rush into the house after the firefighters arrived, which required first a neighbor, then a firefighter to restrain him.

Claim (4) concerns the use of a polygraph. Polygraph examination results or a refusal to submit to such may not be used as evidence of guilt in any US courtroom. The claim of a vulgar and insulting outburst that accompanied Mr. Willingham’s refusal is the worst kind of hearsay.

The same is true of claim (6). We have no idea why Mr. Willingham might have said what is claimed, what he actually said or if he said it at all. And, again, if there is no arson, there is no reason to suspect anything nefarious behind the statement even if he did make it.

Finally, claim (7) — the a refrigerator was blocking the rear exit — has no bearing on the murder conviction. If anything, it may suggest a path to prosecution on negligence — one never taken or considered. But does Mr. Jackson actually suggest that the refrigerator was placed at the back door specifically in order to block the exit path for the one- and two-year old children? According to Willingham’s testimony, the children were behind a far more benign child-proof barrier and could not have reached the rear exit even had they tried. Negligently creating a hazard that blocks an escape route is not the same as setting fire to the house.

It is also telling that Mr. Jackson did not use the alleged jail-house confession to support his case — after he cited it in a number of interviews with other publications, it has been pointed out that the general reliability of jail-house snitches is less than stellar. Given the circumstances and the character of the witness, the reliability of the testimony, in this case, is at the lower end.

In his column, Mr. Jackson wrote that Mr. Willingham was “charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status.” But this is meaningless. The method of killing of which Mr. Willingham was convicted was arson. It does not matter if arson was not the aggravating factor in promoting the charge to capital status. If there is no arson, there cannot be a murder. And the TFSC finding is unambiguous — there is absolutely no evidence of arson at the Willingham home. No one is claiming that we know with certainty that Mr. Willingham was innocent — but we do know that he should not have been convicted for causing death through arson...

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Submitted by Victor Steinbok, lawyer and independent researcher, Needham, Mass.



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