Sunday, May 22, 2011


"In the murder case, we at first assume the accused is innocent, then change our minds as evidence piles up, then change again as Grann lets us know that the "expert witnesses" who sent Willingham to his death were wildly overconfident fools. More learned scientists decided the fire was not intentionally caused; in this celebrated murder case, no murder was committed."



BACKGROUND: (Wikipedia); Cameron Todd Willingham (January 9, 1968 – February 17, 2004), born in Carter County, Oklahoma, was sentenced to death by the state of Texas for murdering his three daughters—two year old Amber Louise Kuykendall, and one year old twins Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham— by setting his house on fire. The fire occurred on December 23, 1991 in Corsicana, Texas. Lighter fluid was kept on the front porch of Willingham’s house as evidenced by a melted container found there. Some of this fluid may have entered the front doorway of the house carried along by fire hose water. It was alleged this fluid was deliberately poured to start the fire and that Willingham chose this entrance way so as to impede rescue attempts. The prosecution also used other arson theories that have since been brought into question. In addition to the arson evidence, a jailhouse informant claimed Willingham confessed that he set the fire to hide his wife's physical abuse of the girls, although the girls showed no other injuries besides those caused by the fire. Neighbors also testified that Willingham did not try hard enough to save his children. They allege he "crouched down" in his front yard and watched the house burn for a period of time without attempting to enter the home or go to neighbors for help or request they call firefighters. He claimed that he tried to go back into the house but it was "too hot". As firefighters arrived, however, he rushed towards the garage and pushed his car away from the burning building, requesting firefighters do the same rather than put out the fire. After the fire, Willingham showed no emotion at the death of his children and spent the next day sorting through the debris, laughing and playing music. He expressed anger after finding his dartboard burned in the fire. Firefighters and other witnesses were suspicious of how he reacted during and after the fire. Willingham was charged with murder on January 8, 1992. During his trial in August 1992, he was offered a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, which he turned down insisting he was innocent. After his conviction, he and his wife divorced. She later stated that she believed that Willingham was guilty. Prosecutors alleged this was part of a pattern of behavior intended to rid himself of his children. Willingham had a history of committing crimes, including burglary, grand larceny and car theft. There was also an incident when he beat his pregnant wife over the stomach with a telephone to induce a miscarriage. When asked if he had a final statement, Willingham said: "Yeah. 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 12 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. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby." However, his final words were directed at his ex-wife, Stacy Willingham. He turned to her and said "I hope you rot in hell, bitch" several times while attempting to extend his middle finger in an obscene gesture. His ex-wife did not show any reaction to this. He was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004. Subsequent to that date, persistent questions have been raised as to the accuracy of the forensic evidence used in the conviction, specifically, whether it can be proven that an accelerant (such as the lighter fluid mentioned above) was used to start the fatal fire. Fire investigator Gerald L. Hurst reviewed the case documents including the trial transcriptions and an hour-long videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene. Hurst said, "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire. Legendary "Innocence" lawyer Barry Scheck asked participants at a conference of the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers held in Toronto in August, 2010, how Willingham, who had lost his family to the fire, must have felt to hear the horrific allegations made against him on the basis of the bogus evidence, "and nobody pays any attention to it as he gets executed." "It's the Dreyfus Affair, and you all know what that is," Scheck continued. "It's the Dreyfus AffaIr of the United States. Luke Power's music video "Texas Death Row Blues," can be found at:

For an important critique of the devastating state of arson investigation in America with particular reference to the Willingham and Willis cases, go to:


"Obsession has a bad reputation. It stands in the way of a healthy life by encouraging a single ruling passion. Its cousins are the fetish, the fixation and the hang-up, not to mention the dreaded monomania. Psychiatrists can prescribe drugs for it. Even so, there are many humans for whom a life without obsession is no life at all," Robert Fulford's May 17, 2011 National post column begins, under the heading, "Obsessive impulsive."

"Obsessive characters appear often in the work of David Grann, one of the stars among current non-fiction journalists," the column continues.

"He's the author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession, a Vintage paperback collection of a dozen articles. He's best known for his brilliant writing on murder and other crimes in The New Yorker. But while criminality is his beat, he doesn't limit himself. He'll go anywhere in search of a good idée fixe.

He can spot an obsession half the world away. One of his articles deals with David O'Shea, a New Zealand marine biologist who admits he's possessed by a "lunatic obsession." O'Shea thinks constantly about his plan to capture, alive, a giant squid of the genus Architeuthis, a deep-ocean mollusc whose tentacles reach 13 metres. Most people have never heard of this creature, and few have ever seen one, but O'Shea is so consumed by his desire to have it that he'll work 18 hours a day in a tiny, dangerous fishing boat, on the outside chance that he'll succeed. He doesn't read or watch TV or go to parties. Friends and family worry about him but he seems to know precisely why he's been put on this Earth, which is the characteristic belief system of the true obsessive.

Another Grann subject, Forrest Tucker, acted out all his life the romance of the stick-up man. From adolescence to old age, he robbed banks and any other place where money might be illegally acquired. He started in the 1930s and never stopped. He was often caught and convicted but he escaped from prison 20 times and always returned to armed robbery, even when he didn't lack money.

By 1999, he had survived a quadruple bypass and was being treated for high blood pressure and a burning ulcer. He was living with his wife in a nice place on the edge of a Florida golf course. And yet, just before his 79th birthday, he knocked over, solo, the Republic Security Bank in Jupiter, Fla. As his self-image demanded, he was dressed as a real gent. He wore all white: white pants, shoes, sport shirt and ascot. When he pointed his gun at the people in the bank they handed over $5,000. But the cops soon caught up with him. One of them said Tucker looked "as if he had just come from an early bird special." Back he went to jail, to the surprise and dismay of his wife. She thought he had given up all that. But he never gave it up. His obsession wouldn't let him.

Grann's favourite obsessives also include the late Richard Lancelyn Green, whose passionate need to know every fact connected with Sherlock Holmes put him at the centre of the title piece in Grann's book, and Jacek Wroblewski, a Polish homicide detective, who picked up a tiny clue suggesting that a writer and teacher named Krystian Bala might be guilty of a murder. The other police laughed at Wroblewski when he explained that Bala had written a postmodern novel, Amok, which indicated he knew a lot of secret details of the murder. Wroblewski turned out to be right, mainly because he let his obsession lead him into the darkest and most convoluted recesses of a criminal mind.

Grann deals with a more threatening kind of obsession when he penetrates the milieu of the Aryan Brotherhood, a gang of murderers in prisons across the United States. They began as a white supremacist mob but evolved into a kind of behind-the-walls Mafia, killers who built their personalities around their ability to terrify their fellow prisoners and the guards. They come across as a nightmarish illustration of the characters who attract Grann. He acknowledges that he's particularly drawn to people "who get some germ of an idea in their heads that metastasizes until it consumes them."

Grann's best-known article by far is "Trial by Fire," a 16,000-word piece that The New Yorker published in 2009. Here his obsessive character is Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright who spent several years doing extensive research that she hoped would prevent the execution of a young man convicted of murder.

She stumbled into an acquaintance with him and wasn't at first convinced that he was innocent. But she intuited that there was something about the story that needed investigating -by her. Her efforts failed and in 2004 Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for killing his three daughters by setting his family house on fire in 1991. Grann's story (subheaded "Did Texas execute an innocent man?") adds to the case against capital punishment and puts in question the use of expert evidence in criminal trials. It also demonstrates Grann's style at its best.

Brendan Gill, in his book Here at The New Yorker, wrote something every editor of nonfiction eventually learns: "Few writers are as clever at organizing their information as they are at amassing it." But Grann is the exception. He's a virtuoso in the art of deploying data. While he writes in plain, crisp sentences and paragraphs, he permits himself a certain flamboyance in the sometimes devious way he uses structure and pacing. While never telling us directly what to think, he lets us trust one account of the events he's describing and then inconspicuously shifts us to another version -and then another.

In the murder case, we at first assume the accused is innocent, then change our minds as evidence piles up, then change again as Grann lets us know that the "expert witnesses" who sent Willingham to his death were wildly overconfident fools. More learned scientists decided the fire was not intentionally caused; in this celebrated murder case, no murder was committed.

It's a complex story that few writers could persuasively carry off. But building a coherent article from many intricate details is one of David Grann's best-developed talents. It's more than a skill. With him it's clearly an obsession."


The column can be found at:


PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be accessed at:

Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at:

Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog;;