When the Jury Gets it Wrong: Are ‘Making a Murderer’ Scenarios More Common Than We Think?

by Criminal Defence Blawg on March 19, 2016

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Cameron Todd Willingham lived in a small country town where everybody knows everybody. He had three daughters: Amber, Karmon and Kameron.

Willingham was a stay at home dad. His wife Stacy worked at her brother’s bar to make ends meet. He loved playing darts, enjoyed heavy metal and was a regular at his local bar. By most measures, Cameron Todd Willingham was living an idyllic life.

That all changed two days before Christmas 1991, when his three daughters were killed in a fire at the family’s Corsicana, Texas home. A jury found Willingham at fault, and he was executed in 2004.

But what if he didn’t do it?

Doubts about Willingham’s guilt began to surface sometime after his execution. Wrongful convictions are more common in the United States than many might believe. According to the Innocence Project, between 2-5 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent. We all want to believe that the justice system delivers us certain rights, including a right to a fair trial. The sad truth is that sometimes innocent people end up with criminal charges. Emotion and stereotyping in jury trials plays a large role in their decision making abilities.

Was Willingham put to death wrongly? While that may never be known, in many cases, these wrongful convictions are due to issues with defense, with overzealous prosecutors and the evidence. Here are three stories of possible wrongful convictions, one who was executed, one who was exonerated and one who is still awaiting exoneration.

Cameron Todd Willingham — Executed by the State

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On a cool day in December, Cameron Todd Willingham’s house went up in flames. His life would soon do the same.

Photo credit

According to statements by Willingham obtained at the scene, the fire occurred while his wife was out shopping for Christmas presents and he was napping. Although Willingham managed to escape, his three daughters, all less than two years old, were killed in the fire.

The evidence in the case that led to Willingham’s arrest and ultimately his conviction came from police inspections of the house after the fire. Their analysis of the scene found evidence of some form of liquid accelerant, as well puddle-shaped charring of the floor and what appeared to be multiple starting points for the fire — signs, they argued, of arson.

Investigators also received testimony against Willingham from a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb, who had met Willingham while the two were locked up. Webb claimed that Willingham had confessed to starting the fire in order to cover up the abuse of one of his daughters. Prosecutors further elucidated Willingham’s motivation by noting his skull and serpent tattoo, as well as his Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin posters as signs that he was a violent sociopath.

For the jury, the evidence proved compelling enough to convict Willingham of murder and for him to receive a death sentence. However, the evidence presented in the case was tragically flawed.

In 2004, the year of Willingham’s execution, chemist and fire investigator Gerald Hurst revisited the evidence put together by the state deputy fire marshal against Willingham. Over 10 years after the incident, arson science had advanced significantly, so much so that Hurst was able to conclude that there was “no evidence of arson.”

Later, in 2009, the Chicago Tribune released an investigative report where nine of the nation’s premier fire scientists unanimously concluded that the case’s original investigators came to an incorrect conclusion and that arson was not in play.

Holes were also poked in the theories of Willingham’s motivation to commit the crime. Johnny Webb, the jailhouse informant, recanted his testimony against Willingham twice, and later admitted that he had lied about Willingham in exchange for the prosecutor’s help in getting a reduced sentence. In regard to the supposed abuse of his children, no bodily injuries were found on the girls during autopsy and Willingham’s wife even told prosecutors that he had never harmed the girls. Finally, James Grigson, the expert psychiatrist used by the prosecution, was eventually expelled by the APA for unethical conduct due to improper procedure and for lying that he could know with “100 percent certainty” whether people would commit violent acts in the future.

Willingham’s last statement? “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.”

Kevin Green — Exonerated after 16 years

On September 30, 1979, Kevin Green came home to a horrible sight. His pregnant wife, Dianna, had been attacked in their home, putting both her life and the life of their unborn child at risk.

Although initial tests showed the fetus was not in jeopardy, it was pronounced stillborn later that day.  To make matters worse, Kevin soon found himself under suspicion for his wife’s attack. When the case went to trial, Kevin was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Kevin served over 16 years of his sentence before DNA evidence exonerated him. After California created an offender database, DNA from Dianna’s attack was linked to Gerald Parker, a serial killer dubbed the “Bedroom Basher.” Parker confessed to the crime along with several other murders.

What’s remarkable about this case is the failure to establish Kevin as the perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt. His alibi — that he was out buying fast food at the time of the attack — was corroborated by an employee at the restaurant. When police arrived at the scene, they noted that the food Kevin had was still warm, adding further credibility to his story.

The main proof presented by the prosecution was testimony from the victim, Dianna Green. This, in spite of the fact that the attack had left Dianna with severe brain damage and amnesia.  When called to the stand, Dianna had difficulty even spelling her own last name. Yet the jury relied on her eyewitness testimony to decide Kevin’s fate.

From one perspective, it’s easy to see why Kevin was pegged as a suspect in the first place. Sixty-four percent of female murder victims are killed by family members or intimate partners. And, prior to the incident in September, the Kevin and Dianna had often argued and occasionally fought physically. However, the standard of evidence for a criminal conviction requires much more than establishing that someone is probably guilty.

You can attribute the mistakes in this case to faulty testimony or overzealous prosecution, but one of the more common causes for wrongful convictions is having a weak defense. Many court-appointed attorneys are overburdened and as a result do not have the means to mount a strong defense for their clients.

Kevin Green will never get back the time he spent in prison, but the state of California did award him $620,000 in compensation in 1999.

Joseph Buffey — Awaiting Re-hearing of New Evidence

Joseph Buffey was convicted in the 2001 rape and robbery of a woman in her 80s in West Virginia. According to reports from the Innocence Project, Buffey wanted to plead his innocence, but his lawyer convinced him to plead guilty, arguing that if Buffey didn’t plead guilty he risked a sentence of up to 300 years behind bars if his case went to trial.

Today, Buffey is in his 14th year of imprisonment.

Unfortunately, what Buffery didn’t know is out of the 300-plus DNA exonerations which have gone to trial, only 10 percent of them have had a defendant who plead guilty. It took his lawyers almost 9 years to get simple DNA testing done. That day came in May 2011 when the DNA profile from the crime scene was scanned into the federal DNA database. It showed another man as matching the DNA profile from the crime scene, and this man had multiple felony convictions on his record, including breaking and entering, robbing a house and assaulting women. Almost an exact copy of the crime Buffey was charged with committing.

“The DNA evidence is definitive evidence proving that Mr. Buffey is innocent of this single perpetrator rape,” Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Judge Bedell refuses to acknowledge that the criminal justice system’s reliance on guilty pleas has resulted in far too many people pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.”

The victim was extremely clear in her statement to police that there was only one aggressor. Even if the results of the DNA test coupled with the victim’s statement don’t offer authoritative evidence of Buffey’s innocence, it has at least created doubt as to him as being victim to faulty legal advice.

Though the Innocence Project has pushed to have the new evidence reconsidered, Buffey is still behind bars to this day.

Buffey’s legal team though has officially filed the needed motion requesting Buffey’s freedom more than 14 years after the crime. If the guilty plea is withdrawn it will will be an extremely proud moment for Buffey. Till that time comes the attorney representing Buffey has filed another motion to release Buffey on a personal recognizance bond, and be electronically confined to his home.

Criminal Defence Blawg

Criminal Defence Blawg

Criminal law blogger at CriminalDefenceBlawg
Criminal Defence Blawg is a criminal law blog, sharing legal expertise and intelligence from the UK, US, Australia and beyond. Contributions from those who share great legal information. Want to get published? Contact us today.
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