Friday, January 1, 2010


Quickly now, when I say the name "Cameron Todd Willingham" what comes to mind?

Hopefully, you said: "A possible wrongful execution." But I wouldn't be surprised if you said: "Who?" And I think that bothers me. When we last saw this case in the headlines, Texas Governor Rick Perry had effectively spiked the investigation into whether or not the science that had been used to convict Willingham was junk. While a number of people wondered what Governor Perry had to hide, it's a safe bet that this just a simple case of a question that goes unanswered doesn't make anyone look bad - or expose anyone to legal liability. And while the case might be making the grade for Top 10 News Stories of 2009 across Texas, it's not being talked about much anywhere else. Which presumably, is exactly what Governor Perry was betting on.

To a point, Cameron's guilt or innocence is beside the point. Partly because Cameron was executed in 2004, and partly because we shouldn't have the expectation that verdicts in criminal trials are ever going to be 100% accurate. So that leaves as the real issue the credibility of the legal system, especially when capital punishment is involved. Governor Perry is concerned with his own credibility. It's a valid concern, but it's likely to bite him in the buttocks once he leaves office, unless his successor is just as concerned with it. Especially given the fact that the Governor seems to have decided that ad hominem attacks on critics are a valid defense.

But how concerned are we with the credibility of the system? Very little, I think. From my vantage point, it smacks of "First they came for the communists, ..." Most of us aren't the least bit concerned with the credibility of the legal system - mainly because we have no concern of ever being the person who might be sent to prison, if not their demise, based on an incorrect conviction. But the apathy that "First they came..." evokes goes deeper than simply a faith that our own innocence will keep us safe. Governor Perry isn't the only person who is convinced that Cameron was guilty. Part of it is based on the fact that whether or not he was an arsonist, Cameron wasn't an angel - the arson trial wasn't his first run-in with the law. It's easy to be outraged (or at least say we are) when there's a sympathetic defendant with no prior criminal history. But whether we realize it our not, we have imbued our legal system with a vast amount of credibility - nearly to the point that the simple act of being arrested is tantamount to a conviction. That level of faith is a difficult thing to let go of - not only because of the void that it would leave, but because of the admission of error that it may entail.

There are a lot of injustices in the world. And there are more every day. Real ones, where there is no question of the evidence, no chance that we've gotten worked up over a guilty person with good public relations. So I'm not going to ask anyone to remember this one. That will be my job. (Let's see if I discharge it properly.) But I think that we should all pick a possible injustice to keep our eye on. Something that lies outside of the things that we passionate about. And be willing, every so often and in small ways, to make a little ruckus about it.

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