Cameron Todd Willingham did not make a sympathetic defendant. He was accused of one of the worst types of crime we witness in our society (murdering his children in an intentionally-set fire). He had been on the wrong side of the law since his early teens, was behind on his bills and out of a job. The jury spent less time deliberating this case than it takes many of us to commute to work. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death, declaring his innocence until a lethal injection silenced him.
Yesterday, is was reported by the Chicago Tribune that a prominent fire scientist has told a state commission reviewing the case that fire investigators had no basis to rule the fire an arson -- opening up the very real possibility that Willingham was an innocent man when the state executed him. Advances in forensic science have cast serious doubt upon Willingham's guilt.
Anyone who has spent real time defending the accused in criminal court knows without a shadow of a doubt that flaws in our justice system -- from human error during investigations to legal misconduct to jury prejudices -- create an imperfect system that leaves open the possibility of sending innocent men and women to prison. It can be difficult in high-profile cases like Willingham's, when the accusations shock and horrify us, to remember that in the United States defendants are innocent until they are proven guilty. And that as the state is making its case the defendant has the inalienable right to the strongest defense.
Although some would argue that a man who would kill his children does not deserve anything more than a cold cell or an electric chair, we do not have a double standard for justice in our country that dissolves the rights of defendants when the details of a case are sensational enough to grab our attention -- and headlines. In fact when guilt has been presupposed by the public, when the accused are looked upon as guilty until proven innocent, is when our justice system is most likely to fail us.
During my long tenure as a defense attorney, which I embarked upon after successfully prosecuting violent crimes, I defended clients whose alleged crimes were as shocking as the ones of which Willingham was accused. Many were presumed guilty because of the seriousness of their crimes. This work provided me with deep insight into the flaws of our judicial system.
Most of all, it long ago strengthened my opposition to the death penalty and my commitment to prevent wrongful convictions. Victims of crime deserve justice. Those who commit crimes must be held accountable for their actions. I will never shy away from vigorous prosecution of criminals, particularly repeat offenders. But just as we prosecute, we also must safeguard the rights of the innocent. For the more than 240 men and women who have been exonerated after wrongful convictions, several from death row, nothing can return to them the pieces of their life destroyed by our legal system. The most we can do is commit ourselves to doing everything in our power to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.
I do not regret trying challenging and sometimes unpopular cases. I would regret far more knowing that I did not do everything in my power to uphold the basis of our legal system regardless of media or societal pressure.
I have, as a candidate for District Attorney in Manhattan, called for a Conviction Integrity Panel in the DA's Office, which will put cases under a magnifying glass before they go to trial or reach a verdict, looking for all of the problems I saw as a defense attorney, which could lead to putting an innocent person in jail. Our justice system owes this to the men and women standing trial, to the victims seeking true justice, and to the men and women whose lives can never be restored after wrongful convictions.
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