“Trial by Fire,” from the September 7 issue of The New Yorker, recounts the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas for setting fire to his house and killing his three children. Reporter David Grann uses disturbing details to reinforce the doubt expressed in the article’s subhead (“Did Texas execute an innocent man?”) , and the drama continues to unfold as more evidence comes to light suggesting a mistake was made.
The facts of Willingham’s story are compelling enough, but Grann’s structure maximizes their impact. He opens the piece with the fire itself, giving readers just the information that was available for investigators to examine.
Those fire investigators are the next characters we meet—the people we count on to interpret the facts and explain what happened. Grann gives us a list of their credentials; one is a former firefighter and recipient of multiple Purple Hearts with decades of on-the-job experience. We follow as Grann recreates their visit to the ruins of the house, which leads them to classify what they find as a clear case of arson.
We know that Willingham may be innocent—but we don’t yet know the cause of the fire. Did some other person set fire to the house? Or was it an accident? If an innocent man was put to death, whose fault is it?
We want to attribute competence to the investigators, even as Grann sows the seeds of doubt by qualifying his verbs in the very ways that experts do (mentioning “what appeared to be a distinct burn trailer” and “stains which, they reported, were consistent with the presence of an accelerant”). But Grann takes his time before giving us a clear signal on how to read the evidence. He makes us sit through the consequences of the investigators’ decisions before he knocks down every bit of authority previously ceded to them.
It’s a powerful technique that pays off dramatically. Grann manages to take a story in which we know the protagonist will die and transform it into mystery and revelation. By withholding his own knowledge and immersing us in the narrative the investigators created—the narrative the community bought—Grann’s readers experience a whisper of the horror that everyone involved with the case must now feel.
[For those who want to hear Grann on Grann, New Yorker.com has a podcast in which editor Blake Eskin interviews him about this story.]