Four years ago, I began looking into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death by the state of Texas in 2004. Willingham had been convicted of murdering his three children in 1991 after they died in a house fire; prosecutors argued that Willingham, who had managed to escape, had actually set the fire himself. The possibility that he was innocent had been explored shortly after his execution, by Maurice Possley and Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune, and by 2008 the Innocence Project had raised even more troubling questions about the scientific evidence that had been used to convict Willingham. Late that year, I did some preliminary reporting into the case, then turned away for two months to work on an article that was due earlier. As soon as I returned to the case, I called Willingham’s stepmother in Oklahoma so we could arrange a time for me to visit. “A very nice man from New York was just here,” Eugenia Willingham told me. “He’s a reporter too. Maybe you know him? His name is David Grann.”
Being scooped by arguably the best magazine writer working today turned out to be a wonderful thing. “Trial by Fire,” was published in The New Yorker in September 2009, and it is, to my mind, a masterpiece of both reporting and writing. Grann begins with three perfectly crafted sentences:
The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
I’ve revisited this story many times since first reading it, and have marveled at Grann’s decisions about when and how to reveal certain critical details. Toward the start of the piece, he places us inside the scorched house with two fire investigators who are trying to piece together what happened, describing the scene so vividly that it’s easy to forget he was not actually present that day:
The men slowly toured the perimeter of the house, taking notes and photographs, like archeologists mapping out a ruin…The air smelled of burned rubber and melted wires; a damp ash covered the ground, sticking to their boots.
As the investigators move through the house – “ducking under insulation and wiring that hung down from the exposed ceiling” – we follow the blaze’s path to the children’s bedroom. The investigators’ observations of burn patterns there lead them to believe that an accelerant was used. Willingham, they deduce, torched the house. Grann does not give us much reason to think otherwise. We learn that Willingham drank too much; cheated on his wife, Stacy; and even beat her when she was pregnant. Grann notes, “A neighbor said that he once heard Willingham yell at her, ‘Get up, bitch, and I’ll hit you again.’”
But Grann, whose best narratives involve misdirection, also drops details here and there that suggest another story. He tells us that Willingham rejected a plea deal that would have allowed him to avoid a death sentence. He points out that there was never an obvious motive. Almost as an afterthought, he mentions that Willingham’s 2-year-old daughter had been punished previously for playing with a space heater that was in the kids’ bedroom. He does not call attention to these details; he just presents them without fanfare and moves on.
He builds on these inconsistencies as the narrative continues, using two people – a teacher named Elizabeth Gilbert, who corresponded with Willingham in prison, and Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed fire investigator – to introduce us to critical evidence we were not previously informed of that points away from Willingham’s guilt. All the while, Grann doles out new facts in a nonlinear way, circling back in the middle of the piece to tell us more about the trial, which he already described in the first section, and enhancing our growing realization that the state’s case was seriously flawed. He also expands upon his portrait of Willingham, slowly shifting our perspective. When Gilbert first meets him, Grann writes:
He was wearing a white jumpsuit with “DR”—for death row—printed on the back, in large black letters. He had a tattoo of a serpent and a skull on his left bicep. He stood nearly six feet tall and was muscular, though his legs had atrophied after years of confinement…He had committed a series of disciplinary infractions that had periodically landed him in the segregation unit, which was known as ‘the dungeon.’
But as our understanding of the case deepens, and we become more uncertain of his guilt, Grann makes his portrait of Willingham more empathetic and nuanced:
Over the years, Willingham’s letters home became increasingly despairing…Since the fire, he wrote, he had the sense that his life was slowly being erased. He obsessively looked at photographs of his children and Stacy, which he stored in his cell. “So long ago, so far away,” he wrote in a poem. “Was everything truly there?”
The notion that Willingham might have been innocent is introduced halfway through the story, with what appears at first to be an abrupt digression:
In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged. Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.
Grann builds on this idea – that it is possible for an individual to be executed for a crime he did not commit – by examining the scientific evidence in the case. He avoids bogging the story down in a tedious examination of the way in which arson investigation has changed over the past three decades; instead, he devotes more than 1,000 words to another, strikingly similar case out of Jacksonville, Fla., which allows us to see that all of the investigators’ initial assumptions at the crime scene were based on a false understanding of how fire behaves.
Grann never overtly states that Willingham has been the victim of a wrongful conviction; he avoids the pitfalls of advocacy journalism by allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. This makes the article’s end – which describes Willingham’s execution – all the more affecting:
The warden told Willingham that it was time. Willingham, refusing to assist the process, lay down; he was carried into a chamber eight feet wide and ten feet long. The walls were painted green, and in the center of the room, where an electric chair used to be, was a sheeted gurney. Several guards strapped Willingham down with leather belts, snapping buckles across his arms and legs and chest.
The article concludes with Willingham’s own words from the gurney – “I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit” – which Grann lets stand without any commentary. The effect is hard to shake.
Pamela Colloff is an executive editor at Texas Monthly and has been writing for the magazine since 1997. Her work has also appeared in The New Yorker and has been anthologized in three editions of Best American Crime Reporting as well as the e-book collection, Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. She has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, first in 2001 for her article on school prayer, and in 2011 for “Innocence Lost” and “Innocence Found,” a series on wrongly convicted death row inmate Anthony Graves.”The Innocent Man,” her two-part series on Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder, was just published in the November and December 2012 issues of Texas Monthly. Colloff lives in Austin with her husband and their two children.
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