I hate to question a good thing - the saying "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" comes to mind. But Over the last week I have been amazed at the coverage being given to Cameron Todd Willingham. You can't skim the blogs or the newspapers without seeing some discussion of the case. (For a great collection of the coverage see Grit's recent post) I'm glad people are looking at this issue - I only wonder why it wasn't done earlier.
Todd Willingham's story of an innocent man being executed based on junk science is not new. Steve Mills and Maurice Posely were the first to cover the case. The two veteran Chicago Tribune reporters were the first to cover the case - in 2004. Their story concluded that Willingham was probably executed for an accidental fire. The story got some coverage in the national media, but nothing close to what the current coverage is. The New York based innocence project was also aware of the case; they seized upon the similarities between Willingham's case and that of Ernest Willis. Although the cases were almost identical, the result was not. Willis was freed - with the help of the prosecutor - while Willingham was executed. The Innocence Project solicited the leading arson experts in the world to review the case. They released their report in 2006; their conclusion - the fire was not intentionally set, and the testimony used to obtain the conviction was nothing more than a collection of myths and "old wives tales." This report received a little more traction, largely because of the connections of the Innocence Project. However, it quickly died out.
One thing the report did accomplish though was that it pushed the State of Texas into action. The Forensic Commission was created, and the first subject studied was the Willingham and Willis cases. Even though they had a report from a panel of leading experts, the commission went out and hired their own expert. Not surprisingly (or perhaps surprisingly for some) the state's expert came back with the same conclusion reached by the panel - the fire was nothing more than an accident. At the same time - not by design because I know the reporter had been working on this for several months - the New Yorker article came out. The combination of the two led to the almost daily discussion now about this case, and what happens next.
My question is why wasn't this a story back in 2004, or at least 2006? You cannot estimate what impact an earlier discussion would have had on views about the death penalty, as well as arson investigations. So while we are debating what happens next, maybe we should also be considering why we weren't talking about this earlier.