23 September 2009

Masterpiece of Journalism

In the current New Yorker, reporter David Grann has one of the best articles I've read in some time, detailing the state's execution of an innocent man.

Obviously the article's content is important - the executed man, Cameron Willingham, appears to have been conclusively innocent. Accused of starting a fire that killed his three children, it has come to light that the original arson investigator was one of the old-school "mystic" types who went with their "instinct," and in the process misinterpreted virtually every clue that pointed to an accidental fire. Texas' clemency process is a joke; there is great pressure for a show of a process but cost-cutting yields nothing more than a facade. The state murdered Willingham, and it's appalling.

But even beyond the content, the article itself is masterful in its structure. It takes us directly into the case, walking us through the arson investigator's conclusions and all of the evidence that led him to conclude Willingham was guilty. At the end of the first part, we know he must be innocent (otherwise why would the article have been written?) but it's hard to see how. He clearly was lying about the fire and must have set it. He's obviously guilty.

The second part of the article introduces questions and doubt, as a woman on the outside begins to take an interest and investigate. The reader is brought along the trail of inquiries, as new problems arise and the pile of questions mounts. By the end of the second part, we doubt.

In the concluding third of the article, Willingham is exonerated. A brilliant expert examines the case and is shocked, and is joined with other experts to conclude Willingham must certainly be innocent. The evidence from the first part is walked through again, this time with a better eye and wiser thoughts. And in the end, the reader is left yearning for someone - anyone - in the appeals process to just pause and look at this. To stop the impending, looming murder.

Willingham dies, of course. It wouldn't be news and it wouldn't be a tragedy otherwise. Almost unquestionably, Texas falsely prosecuted, imprisoned, and executed a man who had just lost his three children in an accidental fire. His wife divorced him and shunned him to the end because she was told he murdered her babies. He died alone and in despair. And innocent. The article hammers home every ounce of the tragedy here.

It's a terrible, wrenching story. I was already firmly opposed to capital punishment (it's impractical and immoral), but if I hadn't been I assuredly would be now.

Read it.

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