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Scoring the Evidence Against Willingham


So it seems likely that Rick Perry will run for president.

To distract myself, I’ve been reading Bill James’ new book Popular Crime. The chapter on Lizzie Borden, in an attempt to distinguish meaningful evidence from less or non-meaningful evidence, proposes a scale in which evidence is given weight, with a score of 100 meaning that someone has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Something that’s close to being dispositive (a DNA match in a sex murder being probably the strongest evidence) would be 80; reliable evidence of previous threats against a victim might be 25, etc. The limitations of the method are obvious, but it’s an interesting starting point for analyzing the state’s evidence. (Incidentally, James scores the evidence against Borden at about 20.)

To pick a completely random example, let’s use this method to assess the evidence against Cameron Todd Wilingham:

  • “Scientific evidence” of arson: Literally worthless.   The damaged house is perfectly compatible with an accidental fire, and the “science” purporting to demonstrate otherwise is about as useful as astrology.   Zero points.
  • The testimony of Jimmy Webb: Webb, a mentally ill jailhouse snitch, testified that Willingham confessed to the murder. Webb testified that Willingham (who was executed because he  refused to cop a plea) decided out of the blue to confess to a stranger while passing by his cell.    This story 1)is extraordinarily implausible on its face, 2)contained assertions that were inconsistent with the evidence, 3)was told by an extremely unreliable witness with strong incentive to lie, and 4)was later recanted by Webb.    Basically, this is about as useless as such evidence could be.   Three points.
  • Willingham’s “character”: Amazingly enough, one of Willingham’s killers has essentially conceded that the two pieces of “evidence” above — the only evidence that the fire was arson in the first place — are of no value.    Essentially, the prosecution’s case is now “Willingham was a really bad guy so he must have done it.”   But — the arguments of another of Willingham’s killers notwithstanding — being a bad person or bad spouse aren’t capital offenses, and they’re relevant only insofar as they show someone capable of having burned his children alive.    So how relevant is the character evidence in this case?  Not very.  His penny-ante criminal history is neither here nor there in terms of a tendency to commit a crime of this magnitude.   His adultery and history of domestic violence would be of some relevance if he had been accused of killing his wife, but as evidence that he killed his children (who he apparently never harmed), it’s very weak tea.   It would carry some weight if there was actually evidence of arson, but in and of itself it’s almost nothing.   I’ll score it at 15 points, and I think that’s generous to the prosecution.
  • Alleged Failure to Act In Accordance With Arbitrary Standards of How Victims Should Act. Except in extreme cases, I’m very dubious about this evidence in any case; it’s impossible to predict how someone will react to an unfathomable tragedy within reason, and Willingham’s actions seem within a reasonable range.   Moreover, even the allegedly damaging witness testimony in this respect is unreliable; witnesses seemed to think his actions were worse after he was arrested than people reported at the time.   5 points, and again if anything I think that’s too high.
  • “Expert” Testimony of his Sociopathy: It was delivered by James Grigson, so essentially all it’s evidence of is that the state’s check cleared.    Let’s just say that among the evidence Grigson used to provide evidence that Willingham was a sociopath was the fact that he had Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden posters as a teenager.  1 point.

I think that’s basically it.   So my final score is 24.    It would be irresponsible for a DA to seek an indictment based on a case this weak, and the fact that someone was executed based on it is an outrageous miscarriage of justice  that in a rational universe would permanently disqualify anyone involved from public office.  If, hypothetically, the governor who signed off on this execution and then suppressed an inquiry into what happened was a credible candidate for president, it would be a national disgrace.

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