Labor Day Reading: An Innocent Man Sent “To Dust” by the State

If you read nothing else this Labor Day weekend, dig into “Trial By Fire” in the current issue of the New Yorker. (Yes, that’s for all of you planning to pounce on Levi Johnston’s Vanity Fair tell-all.)

David Grann’s story about the trial and execution of a potentially innocent man is exemplary journalism. Thoroughly reported and gracefully written, the article recounts how “expert testimony” sent Cameron Todd Willingham to prison for a crime he most likely did not commit.

Willingham’s house burned down on December 23, 1991 and his three children died in the blaze. Although he had no motive for the crime, Willingham was tagged as a murderous arsonist by two local fire officials. In time, their steadfast presumption of his guilt turned family and his Corsicana, Texas neighbors against him. Defended by a lawyer who likewise believed him guilty, Willingham refused to say he’d started the fire and, therefore, exchange a likely death sentence for life imprisonment. He swore he was innocent.

Rather than describe Willingham’s troubled family history, his unlikely supporters and the true criminality of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, I leave the uncomfortable mix of humanity and horror that unfolds with this story to your reading. When I sat down with the magazine, my own place and time slipped away—and I was back in the odd corners of Texas where, coincidentally, I had reported during Willingham’s marriage.

“Trial By Fire” rarely addresses religion, spirituality or ethics but its subject matter—life and death, justice and mercy, compassion and cruelty—threads these concerns through the narrative. When the story ends, the ultimate question coheres in the space after Willingham’s last words. He says: “I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve 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.”

What is our responsibility when innocent men die in our name?