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In defense of Todd Willingham

Via a comment on an older post, I came across this withering critique of Todd Willingham’s defense team. There’s an interesting comparison in there that I don’t believe I’d considered before:

Apparently Willingham’s defense was judged to be technically adequate during the appeals process. As I understand it, all that means is that no egregious errors were made. Willingham’s defense may have been error-free but it was still worthless — I’ll do my best to explain why in a bit. First, I want to take a quick look at another case. In an editorial I’ve brought up before, Duke law professor Jim Coleman suggests that there are effectively two justice systems in the US. If so, I think the high-functioning, principled one is epitomized by the arson case against Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife, just like the Willingham case epitomizes the low-functioning, hypocritical one. Needless to say, Medina didn’t settle for a defense that was merely adequate. His is to Willingham’s as a tank is to a BB gun. The charges against Medina were a bit of an ironic reversal — as Gov. Rick Perry’s general counsel he had a role in denying Willingham a last-minute stay of execution. Did he give a minute’s thought to the enormous difference between the defense the soon-to-be dead man got and the one he’d insist on for himself? I doubt it.

In June 2007, a fire that started in Medina’s detached garage destroyed his house and caused significant damage to neighboring houses as well (my main source an article the Houston Chronicle ran on Jan. 18, 2008). Inspectors claimed that accelerants were used. I can’t tell how their evidence compares to the evidence against Willingham, but at least there was a plausible motive. Medina seemed to be having financial trouble and foreclosure proceedings had been initiated — a “red flag,” according to investigators. Medina’s wife Francisca was charged with arson and he was charged with fabricating evidence.

The theatrical high point of the Medinas’ little flirtation with the wrong side of the bar was in January 2008, when a grand jury handed down indictments against the couple and the DA’s office dropped them like a hot potato. The foreman and assistant foreman of the grand jury were so mad they went to the press. The assistant’s acid comment was that “I’ve just never seen anything like the vigor with which these two defendants were defended by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office….” The foreman said, “If this was David Medina, comma, truck driver, comma, Baytown, Texas, he would have been indicted three months ago.” I think that’s a safe bet, and it’s hard to believe that the Medinas were really treated just like you and me would be.

On the other hand, connections aren’t the only thing that David Medina, Texas Supreme Court Justice, had that David Medina, truck driver, probably wouldn’t have. The real Medina also had the wherewithal to hire top-notch attorneys who in turn hired their own investigators. When Francisca Medina was re-indicted, the defense experts did their thing and the charges were dismissed.

Steve Baldassano, the assistant DA handling the case since January, says his office didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove arson. “We couldn’t eliminate an electrical malfunction,” says Baldassano. Francisca Medina’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, says that last week he provided the DA’s office with a report prepared by independent fire experts who found that the evidence did not prove arson. “Our experts believe that it could not be called an arson fire,” DeGuerin says. Baldassano says the fire investigators DeGuerin hired are often used by the DA’s office, and “you have to keep an open mind to see if new evidence comes up.”

You have to keep an open mind to see if new evidence comes up. Of course. Who could argue with that, or with what the prosecutor, Vic Wisner, told the New York Times? “We have an ethical duty to seek justice.” And not only that, “it would be unlawful, unethical and irresponsible for me to proceed with a case that I do not think has the ability to get beyond a directed verdict of acquittal, let alone beyond a reasonable doubt.” Amazing how the principles kick in when a state supreme court justice and his high-powered attorneys come knocking at the door. It’s certainly possible that the Medinas burned down their house and their crimes were whitewashed. But as far as I can tell it’s at least as likely that it was another case of overzealous and under-informed fire inspectors. So maybe the special treatment was just that the system worked the way it’s supposed to. Or pretty much that way, except maybe just a little bit more, ummmm… efficiently.

As general counsel to Rick Perry, Medina was involved in the decision to shrug off the last-minute report from Gerald Hurst debunking the forensic evidence against Willingham. Needless to say, it’sdeeply ironic that Medina’s wife was cleared of arson charges because the evidence was challenged by an independent expert hired by the defense, or as Perry would say, one of those “latter-day supposed experts.”

We worry a lot about the differential outcomes caused by inequities in the quality of schools or health care (and we should!), but does anything produce starkly differential outcomes like inequities in legal representation?

Good question. Check it out.

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