“The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.”
So spoke Cameron Todd Willingham just before the state of Texas killed him. Governor Rick Perry’s abrupt dissolution of the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the eve of its long-awaited decision in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was an effort to cover up a state-sanctioned murder; days before Willingham’s execution, Perry knew or should have known how riddled with errors and mystical assumptions was the critical expert testimony purporting to show that Willingham had set fire to his own house, with his three young daughters inside. (see, Trial by Fire,” by David Grann: New Yorker, September 7, 2009)
The botched investigation of Willingham’s suspected arson recalls the sex abuse scandals that began during the same period — the early 1980s to the early 1990s — and whose legacy endures to this day. People continue to be convicted of crimes that never happened, based on theories that experts called scientific but which later research has shown to be nonsensical, even medieval.
As in the sexual allegations, purported crime victims in fatal, accidental home fires tend to be young children. The mere suspicion of “harm to minors” awakens deep-seated fears that stifle common sense. Willingham’s prosecutors suggested he was a member of a Satanist cult. The evidence: his heavy-metal rock posters. Day care prosecutions featured expert assertions that the accused were sociopaths and Satanists.
Shoddy arson investigations are getting scrutiny now because Willingham was executed. False convictions of child sexual abuse do not end in capital punishment (though legislatures have tried). Instead, people who are almost certainly innocent have been sentenced to centuries of time in prison. Some–including Fran and Danny Keller in Texas and James Toward and Francisco Fuster in Florida–are still there almost a generation later. The first accused daycare teacher, Bernard Baran, in Massachusetts, was finally released after 22 years and exonerated three years later. Others are released from prison, only to end up on sex offender registries. Junk science didn’t literally kill these people, but it has stolen their lives. Their cases constitute a grave injustice, and desperately need review.
Where there is life, however, there is always hope. Nancy Smith, a school teacher, and Joseph Allen, a Head Start bus driver, were recently released from Ohio prisons after 14 years in prison for committing phantom crimes against five-year-olds. And John Stoll – convicted of allowing people he barely knew to sodomize his six-year-old son, and himself sodomizing young children he had just met and then sending them on home after school – was released after 20 years in state prison. He was immortalized in a movie narrated by Sean Penn (“Witchhunt”), and recently settled a civil rights case against Kern County, California, for 5.5 million dollars. But for Cameron Willingham, there is no revenge, no redemption, no hope at all.
MICHAEL SNEDEKER is a defense attorney, co-author with Debbie Nathan of Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witchhunt, and President of NCRJ.org, an innocence campaign for people wrongly accused or convicted of crimes against children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org