Indiana’s Really Strange Religious Freedom Law Which Is Just An Excuse For Homophobia

America is a funny place. By that I mean peculiarly eccentric. And it’s not always in a good way. Take this as a for instance. The US State of Indiana has just passed a very strange law. It’s called a Religious Freedom Law. But it seems to me the only freedom it grants is the right to be a homophobic bigot. To put it plainly, the law permits individuals and businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion. In other words people can be denied service because of their sexual orientation and that denial is justified on the grounds of religious belief. It doesn’t take much imagination or ingenuity to figure that this law is directed at Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and the Transgender community. The Governor of Indiana, a man called Mike Pence, signed this into law. He says and I quote: ” The bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it was about discrimination, I would have vetoed it.” He’s entitled to his opinion, but civil liberties and gay rights groups have a very different take. They say this law asserts that the government can’t “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and that individuals who feel like their religious beliefs have been or could be “substantially burdened” can rely on this law to fend off lawsuits. Supporters of these laws talk of the example of a florist who refuses to sell flowers for a gay wedding or a baker who refuses to make the couple’s wedding cake — and it’s clear this law is aimed at subverting any lawsuits that the florist or the baker might face.

But what about a restaurant that refuses to serve a gay couple, who simply want to sit down and enjoy a meal?

“It would foil any lawsuit against a supplier who acted on religious grounds, but the law can get squirrely, “ according to one legal analyst, adding that it’s likely that a refusal to serve a gay person would not be upheld under the law, but a refusal to provide a service for a gay wedding would.

Indiana is not the first state to implement this kind of a law.

It’s the 20th American state to adopt a “religious freedom restoration” law, most of which is modelled on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993.

But that law was passed in very different times with the backing of a broad-based coalition and wasn’t proposed against the backdrop of gay rights or the Tsunami of marriage equality laws sweeping the country in recent years.

The law in Indiana, came after an outcry from social conservative groups over publicity where business owners found themselves in hot water for refusing services to gay couples planning to get married.

In addition to those 20 American states, legislators in nine other states have introduced similar types of “religious freedom” laws — bills that either failed to go through in 2014 or are still up for consideration this year.

But a spokesman with the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, says those 20 laws are “dramatically different in their scope and effect.”

“Indiana is the broadest and most dangerous law of its kind in the country,” the spokesman said.

Arkansas’ legislature passed an Indiana-style law, which now heads to the state governor for approval.

Religious liberty — and using it to sabotage same-sex marriage and other gay rights — has become the rallying cry for social conservative groups in the past year as they watched one anti-gay marriage law after another get overturned in the courts. Thank God they were overturned.

What the Indiana Governor didn’t say was that standing behind him, as he signed the bill, were several socially conservative lobbyists, the very ones who pushed for the law and are fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage. One of the lobbyists, Eric Miller, wrote on his website that the law would protect businesses from participating in “homosexual marriage.” So much for being non discriminatory.

The Human Rights Campaign is in no doubt that the only reason these laws were passed was because of the legalising of same sex marriage. However,it is a high-risk political gamble. The States who want this type of law will have to calculate risk versus rewards. Are the rewards that come from the religious groups much greater than the financial cost they will have to wear in lost business?  Never underestimate the power of the pink dollar. You do so at your peril.

These “religious freedom restoration” laws have already been used as a legal defence to allegations of discrimination.

The Human Rights Campaign says there are several cases where individuals have used these laws in a courtroom — and not just in cases involving LGBT people and weddings. For example, a police officer in Oklahoma claimed a religious objection when he refused to police a mosque. Another police officer in Salt Lake City claimed “religious liberty” when he refused to police a gay pride parade. And a photographer in New Mexico used religious freedom as a defence for not serving a lesbian couple in 2013.

Ironically, 21 states currently have laws on their books prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And another nine have those protections, but just for public employees.

So how could a Religious Freedom Restoration law sit comfortably in an environment of laws that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation? The answer is they can’t. “They’ve basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it’s okay to discriminate against people,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. Indiana is starting to discover that having discriminatory homophobic laws is not very helpful. Plenty of very large companies are moving to distance themselves from the Religious Restoration bill. For example, Cloud computer giant Salesforce, says it will cut back on its investments in the State of Indiana.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook, in a Twitter post, said his company was “deeply disappointed,” and called on Arkansas Governor, Asa Hutchinson, to veto a similar measure.

” Apple is open to everyone,” Cook said.

Gen Con, the world’s largest gaming convention with 56,000 attendees last year, said it might stop holding the event in Indianapolis, the state’s main city. This would be a huge financial blow because it contributes more than $50 million to the economy.

The powerful National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is hosting the US men’s college basketball finals in Indianapolis next week, but the Association said it was “especially concerned” about how the law would affect its student athletes and employers. Hollywood stars joined the opposition via social media, where actor Ashton Kutcher likened the law to Anti-Semitism and singer Miley Cyrus directed an expletive at Indiana Governor Pence.

Fortunately, Gay rights have made big strides in recent years, with marriage equality recognized in 37 states after the US Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that federal law could not discriminate against married LGBT couples.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican who opposed the law, said he and other city officials would talk to businesses and convention planners to counter the uproar the law has caused. “I’m more concerned about making sure that everyone knows they can come (here).”

Around the state, bumper stickers saying: “This business serves everyone” have begun appearing in many business windows, and groups such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce have taken to social media with messages that the state is welcoming to all businesses. The stakes in this are pretty high. Indianapolis’ tourism and convention business is estimated to generate $4.4 billion annually and create 75,000 jobs. Chris Gahl, a vice president with the tourism agency Visit Indy, said: “We know that their ability to work is largely dependent on our ability to score convention business and draw in events and visitors.”

Unless Indiana wakes up and smells the coffee and abandons plans to introduce such a discriminatory law, it is going to be hit in a place that will hurt the most. The good old hip pocket nerve. And, quite frankly, so they should.

This Is The Poster Child For Why The Death Penalty Is Flawed 3

I’ve been posting lately about a legal case that could end up being the first to uphold conclusively, that an innocent man was executed by the State, for a crime he didn’t do. Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed using a lethal injection by the State of Texas in 2004. The United States Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 2006, with Justice Antonin Scalia declaring that death penalty opponents could not cite “a single case” in which it was clear that a person was executed for a crime they did not commit.  But there is strong evidence, suggesting Willingham could be that single case, the judge was talking about. In previous posts on this topic, I deconstructed the forensic evidence against Willingham and demonstrated how it was hopelessly flawed and based on old wives tales rather than scientific fact.

Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap, to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns.The so-called expert arson investigators, relied on by the prosecution, concluded that Willingham set fire to a trail of accelerant he laid from the front door of the house, to the children’s bedroom. His motive was to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Allegations, I might add, without merit or evidence.

For more than 20 years, the prosecutor, who persuaded a jury to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, of murdering his three young daughters, has maintained authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of a jailhouse informer, who told jurors that Willingham confessed to the crime in prison.

Those officials continued to defend the account of that informer, Johnny E. Webb. But now new evidence is reviving claims that Willingham was innocent. In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, now gives a detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts to get him favourable treatment by the prosecutor. Now, you have to be extremely careful about assessing the credibility of a witness who changes his story more than once. But there is evidence suggesting that Prosecutor  John H. Jackson, directly intervened to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange for thousands of dollars to be given to the prisoner by a wealthy Corsicana rancher in return for his testimony against Willingham. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently for Webb to receive a lesser sentence and to coordinate with the millionaire rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to provide financial support.

“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness threatened to recant his testimony. “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”

The letters and documents expose a determined effort by prosecutor Jackson to change Webb’s conviction, get him speedy parole, clemency and relocate him from a tough state prison to his hometown jail. Many lawyers are of the opinion that had this favourable treatment been revealed before his execution, there were legal grounds for Willingham to seek a new trial.

Here is a summary of the sequence of events:

Johnny E. Webb is arrested on robbery charges. After talking to Willingham at the county jail, Webb says he was recruited by prosecutor Jackson, to testify against Willingham. Webb agrees and pleads guilty to the lesser charge of first-degree aggravated robbery.

Webb testifies at the Willingham trial that Cameron Todd Willingham confessed to murdering his daughters. Here is the interesting bit. Jackson emphasizes that he made no deal with Webb in return for his testimony. Jackson tells jurors the case rests on two pillars: the arson evidence and Webb’s testimony. The jury convicts Willingham and votes for the death penalty

Jackson asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to grant Webb an early parole hearing and to release him immediately.

In documents recently released, Jackson then writes to Webb on his personal stationery stating that he has been working on Webb’s behalf.

Jackson described the forensic evidence and Webb’s testimony as the foundations of his case, either of which he claimed was enough to convict Willingham. More recently, Jackson acknowledged that one of his foundation pillars had already crumbled but claimed that the trial presented “overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.”

But the letters and court files show that Webb threatened to renounce his testimony against Willingham on at least two prior occasions. In 2000, he sent a formal motion to recant his testimony to the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office that was forwarded to Jackson, but never put in Willingham’s court file or shared with his lawyers.

Jackson, was elected as a Navarro County judge in November 1996 and retired from the bench in 2012. He claims he was just going out of his way to help Webb. But in a recent interview Jackson claimed he did so because he thought Webb was threatened by other inmates for cooperating with the prosecution. He described allegations that he coaxed false testimony from Webb as a “complete fabrication.”

Webb’s latest allegations  could have implications for the political ambitions of Texas governor, Rick Perry, a strong supporter of the death penalty and a possible Republican presidential candidate.

In 2004, Perry refused an application for a temporary stay of Willingham’s execution despite the report of a leading forensic expert strongly disputing the finding of arson by a Texas deputy fire marshal. Perry’s administration is also accused of repeatedly undermining the authority of a state Forensic Science Commission, which agreed that the arson finding that convicted Willingham, had relied on flawed analysis. Defending his handling of the case in 2009, the State Governor claimed Willingham “was a monster.”

Johnny Webb was a 22-year-old drug addict when he met Willingham in the Navarro County Jail, that holds about 125 prisoners on any given day. Willingham had just been arrested. Webb, had a long list of prior convictions when he was jailed for robbing a woman at knifepoint. Webb admitted he was stealing to support a drug and alcohol habit. In two taped interviews with the Innocence Project, conducted almost 22 years after his trial testimony, Webb described how the Navarro County sheriff, removed him out of his cell after he had spoken briefly with Willingham. The Sherrif was desperate to know what they talked about.

Webb said the Sherrif, and then Jackson, urged him to speak again with Willingham about the fire to see if he would incriminate himself. Webb claimed, he was taken repeatedly from jail to Jackson’s office in the courthouse, where the prosecutor showed him photographs of the fire scene that included the bodies of the little girls.

“I was in his office three or four times and he laid them pictures out in front of me and said, ‘Johnny, what do you think about that?’” Webb said. “That could be your child. This dude is guilty.”

Webb, was facing the prospect of a lengthy sentence for his crime. He said he asked Jackson, “What’s going to be my deal?” and Jackson allegedly replied, “If you help me, that robbery will disappear . . . even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later.”

Now, it should be pointed out that there is nothing unusual about prosecutors offering informants lenient treatment, but they are obliged to present testimony they believe to be true and to disclose any deals before a trial so that those witnesses can be cross examined.

“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb said. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.”

Webb told Jackson he wanted to turn his life around and become a properly employed, law abiding citizen. He claims he was told that could be arranged. In the taped interviews, Webb said, “He says, ‘Look, we can get Chuck Pearce ( the millionaire rancher] to help you with anything you need. He’s already there to help you.’ ”

“He had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?”

Five months later, in August 1992, Webb was the first witness called by Jackson to testify for the prosecution at Willingham’s trial. Webb told the jury that Willingham, after repeatedly saying the fire was an accident, then confessed to him while they were speaking through a food slot in Willingham’s cell door.

Webb said Willingham told him he squirted lighter fluid around the home and set it on fire. Webb said Willingham and his wife, Stacy, decided to kill the girls to cover up Stacy’s physical abuse of one of the children. However, post mortems revealed no injuries to the girls other than those suffered in the fire. Forensic experts later discredited evidence at the trial that an accelerant was used to start the fire.

Jackson said that Webb was testifying at great personal risk. “My life has been threatened as well as my family’s life,” Webb said on the stand. “And if I make it to the penitentiary, then I’m going to be in deep trouble.”

Jackson ended Webb’s testimony by asking, “Johnny, have I ever promised you anything in return for your testimony in this case?”

“No, sir,” Webb replied. “You haven’t.”

“As a matter of fact, I told you there is nothing I can do for you,” Jackson said.

“You said there was nothing no one can do for me,” Webb said.

Willingham’s defense was pathetic. His lawyers called only one witness, a babysitter who said Willingham loved his daughters. The trial lasted three days. On Aug. 20, 1992, the jury convicted Willingham of the murders of his children and the following day, voted to sentence him to death.

Willingham, who had refused to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, maintained his innocence. In fact proclaiming his innocence were among Willingham’s last words before he was executed.

Two months after the Willingham trial, a typed, unsigned note to the Navarro County clerk,marked “per John Jackson,” instructed the clerk on how to respond to the Texas Department of Corrections if prison officials inquired about Webb’s status. The note said that Webb had not been convicted of first-degree, aggravated robbery, as he had just testified in open court, but only of second-degree robbery. “If TDC calls and wants to know which one is correct — tell them ROBBERY with No Deadly Weapon Used.” The note also explained the change: “That is what John Jackson wants it to be.”

It was an unsigned note and there is no evidence linking it directly to prosecutor Jackson. Days after the note was sent to the clerk, Jackson sent a letter to prison officials requesting that Webb be assigned to a medical unit, less onerous than protective custody. “Mr. Webb was a pivotal witness in a capital murder prosecution,” Jackson wrote. Webb had “placed himself at risk based upon his testimony in the case and I fear that he may suffer reprisal if placed in the general population.”

He added, “Webb’s testimony may be necessary at [a] later stage of the proceedings and I would appreciate your attempting to place him in an environment that guarantees the smallest risk.”

A month later, Jackson followed up with another letter requesting that Webb be transferred back to the Navarro County Jail because he’d received death threats from other inmates. “In the event of a reversal,” Jackson wrote, “I would also like to be able to count on Webb’s continued cooperation.”

Over the next three years, Jackson kept in touch with Webb, and Pearce, the wealthy rancher, deposited more than $2,000 into Webb’s prison commissary account, according to prison records obtained by the Innocence Project.

Jackson’s campaign for Webb’s early release escalated in May 1996, after Webb reported that he continued to receive threats and demanded to be transferred to federal prison or the Navarro County Jail.

“Here the state offered me certain benefits in exchange for my testimony which resulted in sending a man to death row,” Webb wrote to Jackson. “Because I kept my end of the promise, the state is bound to uphold theirs until my release from incarceration.”

Six weeks later, on July 15, 1996, at Jackson’s request, the Judge who presided over Willingham’s trial and sentenced Webb to prison in 1992, entered a new judgment in Webb’s case. The crime was officially recorded as a conviction for second-degree robbery instead of an aggravated robbery, which reduced the time Webb was required to wait before seeking parole.

Jackson then sent a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles saying he had “recently” become aware through a letter from Webb that prison records mistakenly showed Webb as being convicted of aggravated robbery.

Jackson told the parole board after consulting with Webb’s attorney, he had obtained a court order changing the record to reflect that Webb was convicted on the lesser crime of second-degree robbery, with no weapon involved.

Finally, Jackson followed up with a letter to the head of the parole board saying Webb “volunteered information and testified . . without any agreement from the State respecting diminution of the recommendation in his own case.” He asked that Webb be given consideration for his “Cooperation in the murder prosecution without expectation of leniency.”

Despite the high-level support, Webb grew impatient. His request for early release was denied. But Jackson kept filing for clemency on Webb’s behalf. The application included letters from the robbery victim as well as from Attorney-General Batchelor agreeing that Webb had been punished enough.

Batchelor’s letter said that the prosecution wanted to ensure Webb’s cooperation as long as Willingham was still filing appeals. “Any threat to the public by the early release of Webb is far outweighed by the possibility that Willingham might be successful” in his appeals, Batchelor said.

Shortly after Jackson’s election as a judge in 1996, he organised another series of letters to the parole board.

Webb’s clemency request was denied. He was eventually paroled in 2007.

Jackson’s handling of the case is now under investigation by the State Bar of Texas, following a formal complaint of prosecutor misconduct.

In legal documents filed with the State Bar of Texas, the Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group, investigating the Willingham case for the past decade, argued that Jackson’s conduct “violated his professional, ethical and constitutional obligations.” The group called for a full investigation of Jackson’s handling of the case, arguing that he should be sanctioned or criminally prosecuted for falsifying official records, withholding evidence from the defence, perjury and obstructing justice. Jackson’s conduct, according to the documents, “violated core principles of the legal profession, and did so with terrible consequences . . . the execution of an innocent man.”

An attorney for Jackson says he expects the Texas bar to notify his client soon that it will pursue formal charges of misconduct. The attorney, Joseph E. Byrne, says Jackson will seek to have the charges heard by a jury, as the bar rules allow.

In his interviews earlier this year with the Innocence Project, Webb said: “I’ve been wanting to come forward with this . . . for a long, long time about certain specific things that no one’s ever known. This has been something that’s pretty much destroyed my life for 22 years.”

He should have added and caused the death of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The Baseball Star Turned Internet Vigilante. Social Media Trolls Beware

Something interesting happened the other day that well and truly blurred the lines between real life and the one that lives in the digital world called social media. They are fast becoming one and the same if they haven’t already. There is no better example of a blurred line than when people behave very badly in the digital world and don’t expect consequences or retribution. In other words, you can’t go round dissing people and not expect it to come back to bite you. What goes around comes around and in this case boy did it come around. It all centres on someone unlikely. Someone, you wouldn’t expect to be a digital crusader. His name is Curt Schilling. If you follow baseball in the United States then you’ll know he’s a bit of a legend of the game. But it’s not his baseball exploits that we are talking about.

Curt Schilling turned himself into a troll hunter and a pretty effective one at that after his daughter became the target of what can only be described as vicious online social media abuse and bullying. I think it would be fair to say that her father’s sporting notoriety might have been a motivating factor for the abuse. But it was uncalled for and thoroughly unpleasant. People who do this kind of thing are cowards. They hide behind the anonymity that social media generously gives them except they did not count on Schilling.

The former Red Sox pitcher acted swiftly, publicly humiliating his targets and getting some of them fired from their jobs and suspended from university. It was internet vigilantism at its finest. It all began when Schilling had the temerity to tweet his congratulations to his 17-year-old daughter, Gabriella, on gaining a softball scholarship. I mean the arrogance of the man. What was he thinking? Apparently major league baseball stars aren’t allowed to express parental pride in the achievements of their offspring. Or so some people seem to think. Schilling was just like any other Dad who sees his kid stand up on their own two feet and achieve something in life. Good on him I say for being a father taking an interest in his child.

Schilling says as a world famous sports star and avid social media user, he was expecting the inevitable “smart ass college kid” replies, which included “I’ll take care of her” and “Can’t wait to party with her.” But he was horrified at the torrent of graphic and violent comments that followed. “I want to come and play but Gabby wants me to *** and stay,” said one. “Teach me your knuckleball technique so I can shove my **** in your daughter,” read another.

In what is now the hallmark of the troll, the tweets mentioned rape, as well as bloody underwear, “and pretty much every other vulgar and defiling word you could likely fathom,” Schilling said.

So Curt Schilling drew a line in the sand and said enough. But that’s not all. No sir. If you are going to play with fire, best not invite Curt Schilling to the party because you are going to get badly burned. Schilling used his position in the public eye to out the internet trolls. He identified two of them in particular, who had made little or no attempt to conceal their true identity. One was Adam Nagel, a sophomore at Brookdale Community College, who called himself The Sports Guru. The other, with the username Hollywood, was vice president of the Theta Xi fraternity at Montclair State University. “I was a jock my whole life,” Schilling said. “I played sports my whole life. Baseball since I was 5, until I retired at 41. I know clubhouses. I lived in a dorm. I get it. Guys will be guys. Guys will say dumb crap, often. But I can’t ever remember, drunk, in a clubhouse, with best friends, with anyone, ever speaking like this to someone …”

After he outed them, Schilling wished them luck if they were googled. He said he kept every one of their offensive tweets. “No less than 7 of the clowns who sent vile or worse tweets are athletes playing college sports,” he said. “I knew every name and school, sport and position, of every one of them in less than an hour.” Like I said. Do not mess with Mr Schilling.

The 48-year-old father of four got in touch with the coaches and parents, of the people who wrote the offensive tweets. Many were made to write letters of apology. He also published two more tweets by users Justin Time and Jacob Robbins, “to let you internet sleuths have a go” meaning Schilling’s blog followers.

Commenters on his blog and Twitter users began circulating the names of Nagel and the Montclair student, Sean Macdonald, along with their mobile phone numbers, email addresses and social media account details. MacDonald, who worked part time selling tickets for the Yankees, was fired, and Nagel was suspended from university. All their social media accounts have been deleted.

Justin Time was identified as Liam Cronin, a camp counsellor from Huntington, New York. Jacob Robbins was identified variously as a student at St Ambrose University in Iowa, as a San Jose State student and as someone called Ben Cohen. Two days later, he released another name, which received the same treatment. Schilling’s campaign made headlines nationwide in the United States. Some applauded him for speaking out against verbal abuse on social media. Others expressed concern over what they perceived as witch-hunts, and Schilling’s “doxxing” of the trolls, which means revealing personal information online, and is illegal.

Cronin went so far as to reveal himself on Schilling’s blog, explaining that his comments about Gabby being “passed around” only referred to “sluttiness”, not rape. Sorry but that doesn’t cut it as any kind of apology or act of contrition. “I simply was trying to piss off curt schilling because I think he’s a moron,” Cronin wrote, adding that Schilling’s fans had called his college demanding he be kicked out, his past employers to make sure he is blacklisted for life and his parents, to tell them what a terrible job they did.

So how does Curt Schilling feel about all the trouble he’s caused? You may not be surprised to know that he is utterly unrepentant. He told the New York Post newspaper, there’s no longer any distinction between online and offline lives. “People are saying, ‘Hey, Curt Schilling called out people on Twitter, and they got in trouble in real life.’ Twitter now IS real life — Facebook, Instagram, all of it,” Schilling said. He is right. Schilling says he is now done with naming names, at his daughter’s request, although she told People magazine she didn’t feel sorry for the trolls.

“It’s really sad that one thing they said could cost them their entire career on a sports team or their job, but I think it’s even sadder that they don’t think that should have happened,” Gabriella Schilling said.

Curt Schilling’s act is the latest in a series of online social media shaming, which saw a PR executive, Justine Sacco, publicly vilified for an offensive and racist tweet she made about AIDS. Lindsay Stone went into hiding after a tasteless joke she made at an American military cemetery which she later shared on social media and Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice lost endorsements after using a gay slur. A Brisbane tech blogger, Alanah Pearce turned the tables on her trolls by contacting their parents. The internet is a bit like being careful what you wish for. It offers opportunities for verbal abuse and for retaliation. For every action there is a reaction. The father turned social media vigilante summed up his position on his blog: “Gabby I know you’re likely embarrassed ( for what I did) and for that I apologise. But as we have talked about, there is no situation ever in your life, where it’s OK for any ‘man’ to talk about you, or any other woman this way.

“This is so far off the radar it’s pathetic. The ignorance and pathetic lack of morals or of any integrity is astounding. These aren’t thugs, tough guys or bad asses, these aren’t kids who’ve had it rough, they aren’t homeless or orphans, these are pretty much ALL white, affluent, college attending children, and I mean children.

“It truly is time this stopped. I don’t know where it started because it sure as hell didn’t happen much when we were growing up.”

He’s so right about that. Should we feel sorry for the trolls who lost their jobs or got kicked out of University for what they did? Do they deserve our collective sympathy? Did Curt Schilling over react in what he did, defending his daughter? Let me take a second to think about that. Ok. I did. No.

This Is The Poster Child For Why The Death Penalty Is Flawed 2

Recently I wrote about why I consider the death penalty is deeply flawed. When authorities get it totally wrong, they only succeed in killing an innocent human being. This happens to be an important issue right now, because of a case in Texas which is the poster child for why the death penalty doesn’t work. It concerns a man called Cameron Todd Willingham. The evidence now suggests, he was wrongly convicted of murdering his three small children by committing arson.

Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap, to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns. The so-called expert arson investigators, relied on by the prosecution, concluded that Willingham set fire to a trail of accelerant he laid from the front door of the house to the children’s bedroom. His motive was to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Allegations, I might add, without merit or evidence.

Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004.

Sadly what may happen in the future, isn’t going to bring Cameron Todd Willingham back to life but it could win him redemption as far as the law and the State of Texas is concerned. It isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing.

But let’s take up the story again: Soon after the fire, the police began questioning Cameron Todd Willingham.  The two so called arson experts, Fogg and Vasquez were present for the interview, along with a police officer who happened to be working his first arson case. Talk about the blind leading the blind.  Willingham told them his wife Stacy, left the house around 9 on the morning of the fire. to pick up Christmas presents for the children. “After she got out of the driveway, I heard the twins cry, so I got up and gave them a bottle,” Willingham said. The children’s bedroom had a safety gate across the doorway, which Amber, the oldest girl, could climb over but not the twins. Willingham said he and Stacy often let the twins nap on the floor after they drank their bottles. Amber was still in bed, so he went back into his room to sleep. “The next thing I remember is hearing ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ ” he recalled. “The house was already full of smoke.” He said he got up, felt around the floor for a pair of pants, put them on but he could no longer hear his daughter’s voice :“I heard that last ‘Daddy, Daddy’ and never heard her again”, and he yelled, “Oh God— Amber, get out of the house! Get out of the house!’ ” He said he never sensed that Amber was in his room.  Willingham said his only explanation was that she had already lost consciousness by the time he stood up, or she came in after he left, through a second doorway, from the living room. Willingham said that he went down the corridor and tried to reach the children’s bedroom. He said, in the hallway, “you couldn’t see nothing but black.” The air smelled the way it had when their microwave had blown up, three weeks earlier—like “wire and stuff like that.” He could hear sockets and light switches popping, and he crouched down, almost crawling to the children’s bedroom. He stood up and his hair caught fire. “Oh God, I never felt anything that hot before,” he said of the heat radiating out of the room.

He said after he extinguished the fire in his hair, he got down on the floor and groped in the dark. “I thought I found one of them once,” he said, “but it was a doll.” But he could no longer tolerate the intense heat. “I felt myself passing out,” he said. Finally, he stumbled down the corridor and out the front door, trying to catch his breath. He saw his neighbour Diane Barbee and yelled for her to call the Fire Department. After she left, he said he tried, without success, to get back inside the burning house. The investigators asked him if he knew how the fire started. Willingham told them he wasn’t sure, but he thought it must have originated in the children’s bedroom, because that was where he first saw flames.  They were glowing like “bright lights” he said. He and Stacy used three space heaters to warm the house, and one of them was in the children’s bedroom. “I taught Amber not to play with it,” he said, adding that she got punished ” every once in a while for messing with it.” He said he didn’t know if the heater, which had an internal flame, was turned on. Arson investigator Vasquez later testified that when he checked the heater, four days after the fire, it was in the “Off ” position. Willingham believed the fire might have been caused by an electrical fault. When pressed by investigators on whether someone might have a motive to hurt his family, Willingham said he couldn’t think of anyone that “cold-blooded.” He said of his children, “I just don’t understand why anybody would take them, you know? We had three of the most pretty babies anybody could have ever asked for. Me and Stacy’s been together for four years, but off and on we get into a fight and split up for a while and I think those babies is what brought us so close together . . . neither one of us . . . could live without them kids.”

Recalling Amber, Willlngham said, “To tell you the honest-to-God’s truth, I wish she hadn’t woke me up.”

During the questioning, Vasquez let Fogg take the lead. Finally, Vasquez turned to Willingham and asked a question: had he put on shoes before he fled the house? “No, sir,” Willingham replied. A map of the house was on a table between the men, and Vasquez pointed to it. “You walked out this way?” he said. Willingham said yes. At that moment Vasquez was convinced that Willingham killed his children. If the floor was soaked with liquid accelerant and the fire burned low, as the evidence suggested, Willingham could not have fled the house in the way he described without badly burning his feet. A medical report indicated his feet were untouched by fire.

Willingham kept insisting that, when he left the house, the fire was still around the top of the walls and not on the floor. “I didn’t have to jump through any flames,” he said. Vasquez thought this was impossible. Willingham started the fire as he retreated, first, torching the children’s room, then the hallway, and then, from the porch, the front door. Vasquez said of Willingham, “He told me a story of pure fabrication. . . . He just talked and he talked and all he did was lie.” But if Willingham did this what was the motive?  The children had life-insurance policies, but they amounted to fifteen thousand dollars, and Stacy’s grandfather, who paid for them, was listed as the primary beneficiary. Cameron Todd Willingham was not a particularly nice man. He was a wife beater but Stacy told investigators that even though Willingham hit her he never abused the children—“Our kids were spoiled rotten,” she said, adding, she did not believe  Willingham murdered them.

John Jackson, then the assistant district attorney in Corsicana, was assigned to prosecute  the Willingham case. He later told the Dallas Morning News that he considered Willingham to be “an utterly sociopathic individual” who saw his children as “an impediment to his lifestyle.” Or, as the local district attorney, Pat Batchelor, put it, “The children were interfering with his beer drinking and dart throwing.”

Two weeks after the fire, police arrested Cameron Todd Willingham in circumstances that resembled a fictional police TV drama. He was riding in a car with Stacy when they were surrounded by SWAT teams, forcing them to the side of the road. “They pulled guns out like we had just robbed ten banks,” Stacy said. “All we heard was ‘click, click.’ . . . Then they arrested him.”  Willingham was charged with three counts of murder. And since there were multiple victims, he was eligible for the death penalty, under Texas law. Unlike many other prosecutors in the state, Jackson, who had ambitions of becoming a judge, claimed to be personally opposed to capital punishment. “I don’t think it’s effective in deterring criminals,” he would later say. “I just don’t think it works.” He also considered it an expensive drain on the legal and the appeals process. For example it costs, on average, $2.3 million to execute a prisoner in Texas, three times the cost of jailing an offender for forty years. Jackson said. “What’s the recourse if you make a mistake?” Yet his boss, the District Attorney, believed that, “certain people who commit bad enough crimes give up the right to live,” and Jackson came to believe that the abhorrent nature of the crime in the Willingham case, “one of the worst in terms of body count” he had prosecuted, demanded the death penalty.

But shortly before jury selection, Jackson approached Willingham’s attorneys with an extraordinary offer. If their client pleaded guilty, he would get a life sentence. “I was really happy when I thought we might have a deal to avoid the death penalty,” Jackson would later say. As it turned out Willingham’s lawyers were equally pleased. For defence attorneys they had an extraordinary attitude to the case. They shared the prosecution view that Willingham committed the murders and that, if the case went before a jury, he would be convicted and executed. “Everyone thinks defense lawyers must believe their clients are innocent, but that’s seldom true,” one of Willingham’s defence lawyers told New Yorker magazine.  “Most of the time, they’re guilty as sin.” He said of Willingham, “All the evidence showed that he was one hundred per cent guilty. He poured accelerant all over the house and put lighter fluid under the kids’ beds.” It was, he said, “a classic arson case”: there were “puddle patterns all over the place—no disputing those.”  Only one problem with reaching that conclusion. The science it was based on was, as you will soon discover, completely bogus and without merit.

Willingham’s defence lawyers advised their client to accept the offer, but he refused. The lawyers asked his father and stepmother to speak to him. They were shown photographs of the burned children and told, “Look what your son did. You got to talk him into pleading, or he’s going to be executed.” They visited their son in jail, and although his father did not believe he should plead guilty if he was innocent, Willingham’s stepmother begged him to take the deal. “I just wanted to keep my boy alive,” she said. But Willingham refused. “I ain’t gonna plead to something I didn’t do, especially killing my own kids,” he said. But Willingham’s refusal to accept the deal only confirmed the view in the minds of the prosecution, and his defence lawyers, that he was an unrepentant cold blooded killer. Clearly, Cameron Todd Willingham never stood a chance.

In August, 1992, the trial commenced in downtown Corsicana.  The State’s case, rested almost entirely on the scientific evidence gathered by arson investigators Vasquez and Fogg. On the stand, Vasquez detailed what he called more than “twenty indicators” of arson. “Do you have an opinion as to who started the fire?” one of the prosecutors asked. “Yes, sir,” Vasquez said. “Mr. Willingham.” The prosecutor then asked Vasquez what he thought Willingham’s intent was in starting the fire. “To kill the little girls,” he said. The defense tried to find a fire expert to counter Vasquez and Fogg’s testimony, but the one expert they contacted agreed with the prosecution. Ultimately, the defense presented only one witness to the jury: the Willinghams’ babysitter, who said she could not believe that Willingham could have killed his children. The Defence Attorneys later admitted Willingham wanted to testify, but they thought he would make a bad witness. The trial ended after two days.

During his closing arguments, Jackson told the jury the puddle configurations and pour patterns were Willingham’s inadvertent“confession,” burned into the floor. Showing a Bible, salvaged from the fire, Jackson repeated the words from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whomsoever shall harm one of my children, it’s better for a millstone to be hung around his neck and for him to be cast in the sea.” The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. As Vasquez put it, “The fire does not lie.” But he should have added arson investigators can make big, big mistakes.

By 2004,  Willingham had a new and much better legal team who had managed to persuade  a real, expert, arson forensic investigator to become involved in the case. This was not someone purporting to be an expert, he was and is the real deal. His name is Doctor Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and fire investigator He received a file describing all the evidence of arson gathered in  the Willingham case and agreed to look at it pro bono.

Hurst opened the file in the basement of his house in Austin, which served as his laboratory and office. Hurst was child prodigy, raised by a sharecropper during the Great Depression, He would scour junk yards, collecting magnets,copper wire and other bits and pieces in order to build radios and other amazing stuff. In the early 1960s, he received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University, where he started to experiment with explosive chemicals, like fluorine even blowing up his own lab. Later, he worked as the chief scientist on secret weapons programs for several American companies, designing rockets and deadly fire bombs. He helped patent what has been described, as the world’s most powerful non nuclear explosive, an Astrolite bomb. He experimented with toxins so lethal,  a fraction of a drop is capable of rotting human flesh. When he gave up working in the defence industry, his extraordinary knowledge of fire and explosives, made him a sought after expert witness in determining the cause of a fire. Hurst found himself devoting a huge chunk of his time to criminal-arson cases, and, when he became exposed to the methods of local and state fire investigators, he was shocked and horrified by what he saw.

He discovered many arson investigators, only possessed a high-school education qualification. In most states, in order to be certified, arson investigators underwent a forty-hour course on fire investigation, and had to pass a written exam. In most cases, almost all of the investigator’s training came from on the job learning, taught to them by “old-school investigators” in the field, who passed down collective wisdom about the telltale signs of arson, even though a study in 1977 warned there was nothing in “the scientific literature to substantiate the validity” of these theories. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association, which promotes fire prevention and safety, published its first scientifically based guidelines for arson investigation. But many arson investigators  still believed that what they did was more art than science—a blend of experience and intuition which was a nonsense approach.  “People investigated fire largely with a flat earth approach,” Hurst said. “It looks like arson—therefore, it’s arson. My view is you have to have a scientific basis.Otherwise, it’s no different than witch-hunting.” He might have been talking about the Willingham case.

Ironically, Doctor Gerald Hurst received the files on the  Willingham case only a few weeks before Willingham was executed. As he looked through the case records, a statement by Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal, almost knocked him over. Vasquez claimed to have investigated between 12 and  15 hundred fires and “most all of them” were arson. This was an unbelievably high estimate. Statistics show the Texas State Fire Marshals Office typically found arson in only fifty per cent of cases. Hurst also took issue with Vasquez’s claim that the Willingham fire “burned fast and hot” because of a liquid accelerant. The claim that a flammable or combustible liquid caused flames to reach higher temperatures, was frequently repeated in court by arson investigators for decades even though this theory was rubbish. Scientific experiments had proved that wood and gasoline-fuelled fires, burn at roughly the same temperature.

Then Hurst set about demolishing the arson conclusions reached by Vasquez and Fogg in the Willingham case. The two investigators claimed that proof of arson could be found in the fact that the front door’s aluminium threshold melted. “The only thing that can cause that to react, is an accelerant,” Vasquez had said. But Hurst wasn’t buying it.  He knew scientifically that a natural-wood fire can reach temperatures as high as two thousand degrees Fahrenheit, far hotter than the melting point of aluminium alloy. Hurst discovered that like many other arson investigators, Vasquez and Fogg mistakenly assumed that wood charring underneath the aluminium threshold was evidence, as Vasquez put it of “a liquid accelerant flowed underneath and burned.” Hurst then conducted many different experiments to show that this type of charring was caused by the aluminum conducting so much heat. In fact, when liquid accelerant is poured under a threshold, a fire will extinguish itself, because of a lack of oxygen. Other scientists reached the same conclusion.

Hurst then turned to Fogg and Vasquez’s claim that the “brown stains” on Willingham’s front porch was evidence of “liquid accelerant,” which did not have time to soak into the concrete. Hurst had previously performed a test in his garage, where he poured charcoal-lighter fluid on the concrete floor, and ignited it. When the fire was extinguished, there were no brown stains, only soot smudges.

Hurst ran the same experiment many times, with different kinds of liquid accelerants, and the result was always the same. Brown stains were common in fires; but he concluded they were usually composed of rust or gunk from charred debris, mixed with water from fire hoses.

Another crucial piece of evidence implicating Willingham was the “crazed glass” that Vasquez claimed was formed by the rapid heating from a fire fuelled with liquid accelerant. Fogg and Vasquez seemingly were unaware that in November 1991, a team of fire investigators inspected fifty houses in the hills of Oakland, California, ravaged by brush fires. In a dozen houses, the investigators discovered crazed glass, even though a liquid accelerant was not involved. Most of these houses were on the periphery of the fire, where firefighters shot streams of water. As the investigators later wrote in a published study, they were of the opinion that the fracturing was induced by rapid cooling, rather than sudden heating. Thermal shock caused the glass to contract so rapidly it became disjointed. The investigators then tested the theory in a laboratory. When they heated glass, nothing happened. But every time they applied water to the heated glass, the intricate patterns appeared. Hurst said he saw the same phenomenon when he blowtorched and then cooled glass during his research at Cambridge University. In his report, on the Willingham case, Hurst wrote that Vasquez and Fogg’s conclusion on the crazed glass was nothing more than an “old wives’ tale.” Hurst then took on the most important arson evidence against Willingham, the burn trail, the pour patterns and puddle configurations, and other burn marks indicating the fire had multiple points of origin.  There was also the positive test for mineral spirits discovered by the front door, and Willingham’s statement that he fled the house without burning his bare feet.

As Hurst continued to read through the case files, he discovered that Willingham and his neighbours described the windows in front of the house suddenly exploding and flames roaring through. Hurst then looked at a floor plan of Willingham’s house, drawn by Vasquez, illustrating all of the pour patterns and puddle configurations. Hurst traced along the Vasquez’s diagram. The burn trail had gone from the children’s bedroom, turned right in the hallway, and headed out the front door. John Jackson, the prosecutor, said that the fire path was so “bizarre” it could only have been caused by liquid accelerant. But Hurst found it was a natural product of the dynamics of fire. Willingham fled through the front door, and the fire simply followed the ventilation path, toward the opening.

Similarly, when Willingham broke the windows in the children’s bedroom, flames shot outward. Hurst said Vasquez and Fogg considered it impossible for Willingham to run down the burning hallway without scorching his bare feet. But Hurst found the pour patterns and puddle configurations, were consistent with Willingham’s explanation of events. When Willingham exited his bedroom, the hallway was not on fire; the flames were contained within the children’s bedroom, where he saw the “bright lights” along the ceiling.

Vasquez made a videotape of the crime scene, and Hurst looked at footage of the burn trail. He said in his report even after repeated viewings, he could not find the three points of fire origin, as Vasquez had. But, it turns out, the other investigator, Fogg,  disagreed with Vasquez on this evidence, but remained silent because nobody from the prosecution or the defence ever asked for his opinion on the subject. After Hurst reviewed the infamous Fogg and Vasquez’s list of more than twenty arson indicators, he believed only one had any potential validity: the positive test for mineral spirits near the front door. But why did fire investigators only obtain a positive reading in that location? According to Fogg and Vasquez, Willingham poured accelerant throughout the children’s bedroom and down the hallway. Officials conducted extensive tests in these areas, including all the pour patterns and puddle configurations, and found no evidence of accelerant.

In any case, Hurst said he could not believe Willingham would pour accelerant on the front porch of the house, in clear view of the neighbours. Then Hurst noticed something else, a photograph of the front porch taken before the fire, which was included in the file of evidence. On the tiny porch, was a charcoal grill, where the family cooked barbecue. Court testimony from witnesses confirmed the grill, along with a container of lighter fluid, burned when the fire raged onto the porch. By the time Vasquez inspected the house, the grill had been removed from the porch, during cleanup. And although he referred to the container of lighter fluid in his report, he made no mention of the barbecue grill. At the trial, he insisted he was never told of the grill’s placement. Other authorities were aware of the grill but dismissed it as irrelevant. Hurst, however, was convinced he had solved the mystery. He determined that when firefighters blasted the porch with water, they had, in all probability, spread charcoal-lighter fluid from the melted container.

Hurst said, it was impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of the blaze without visiting the scene. But, based on the evidence, he concluded it was an accidental fire, caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. Hurst concluded  there was no evidence of arson, and a man who “ already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.”

The fifteen members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews applications for clemency, was sent Hurst’s report, but they still denied his application.  A group called  The Innocence Project which campaigns against the death penalty later took up the Willingham case. They obtained, through Freedom of Information, all the records from the governor’s office, and the Pardons and Paroles board, relating to the Hurst report. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” The Innocence Project said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”

After his death, Willingham’s parents were finally allowed to touch his face for the first time in more than a decade. Later, at Willingham’s request, they cremated his body and secretly spread some of his ashes over his children’s graves. He told his parents, “Please don’t ever stop fighting to vindicate me.” In December, 2004, questions about the scientific evidence in the Willingham case began to surface. Two journalists from the Chicago Tribune, published an investigative series after learning of the Hurst report, The journalists then asked three fire experts, to examine the original investigation. The experts concurred with the Hurst report and in an independent review of the arson evidence in the Willingham case, concluded that “each and every one” of the indicators of arson were “scientifically proven to be invalid.”

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by arson investigators. The first cases are being reviewed by the commission, including the Willingham case. In mid-August, 2009, a noted fire scientist, Craig Beyler, hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In his report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of fire dynamics, relied on discredited old wives tales, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said the Vasquez approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics” in other words arrant nonsense. Beyler determined that the investigation not only violated scientific standards of today “but even of the time period” of the fire. The commission is reviewing his findings, and will release its own report despite the efforts of Texas Governor Perry to reconstitute its members. There is still a chance, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge, officially, that it carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”  In part three of the series we will examine the latest evidence that may result in a posthumous pardon for Cameron Todd Willingham.

This Is The Poster Child For Why The Death Penalty Is Fatally Flawed

Just for the record. I am not in favor of the death penalty. It’s not that I don’t think people guilty of heinous crimes, shouldn’t pay the ultimate price. The problem I have is when the system, and a jury and a prosecutor, get it completely wrong. It’s been known to happen. And when it does, there’s no turning back. You cannot undo what has been done. Therein lies the problem. Sorry, but the way I see it, if you can’t guarantee that every person, who receives the death penalty, was one hundred percent guilty of the worst crime imaginable, then I’m sorry to say as a punishment it ain’t worth having. If you get it wrong, all you’ve done is kill an innocent human being. And when that happens, we are talking about not one but two equally abhorrent crimes. The case I am about to recite is the poster child for why the death penalty doesn’t work. In fact, this case is so outrageous and so compelling I want to deconstruct and examine the sum of its many parts. You can’t really do justice to this story with just one blog post. So this is the beginning of a series. To misquote that infamous Bette Davis line, fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The good old State of Texas, which has no hesitation whatsoever about using the death penalty, executed a man called Cameron Todd Willingham by lethal injection in 2004.

Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns.

Willingham’s wife, Stacy Kuykendall, was not home at the time. Prosecutors claim he deliberately started the fire to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters by arson in 1992 and was executed 12 years later. He claimed he was innocent right up until his death, using his last words to say: “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit.” Actually he said a bit more than that: “ 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.”

Of course, guilty people can still claim they are innocent right up until the time they take their last breath. Willingham was offered a plea deal where he could avoid the death penalty. All he had to do was say he did it. But he refused. Again I draw no great significance from that either. What was always going to ultimately decide his guilt or innocence was the evidence, more specifically the forensic evidence. And that is precisely where this case begins to fatally unravel.

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story weatherboard building in a poor neighbourhood. Flames spread along the walls, through doorways, blistering paint, tiles and furniture. Smoke rose up to the ceiling, then curled downward, invading each room and through crevices in the windows.

Buffie Barbee, eleven years old, lived two houses down from the Willinghams. She was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street to see the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, his bare chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He screamed, “My babies are burning up!” His three children, one-year-old twin girls, and a two-year-old were trapped inside. Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Diane raced down the street to get help he found an object to break the children’s bedroom window but fire lashed through the hole. He broke another window and flames burst through that as well. He retreated to the backyard, kneeling in front of the house. A neighbor later told police that Willingham intermittently cried, “My babies!” then fell silent, as if he had “blocked the fire out of his mind.”

Within minutes, the first firemen arrived, and Willingham approached them, shouting his children were trapped inside the burning house. He grew more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck to calm him down. Willingham explained his wife, Stacy, left the house earlier that morning, and he was woken from sleep by Amber screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!”“My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,”he said “I couldn’t get my babies out.” While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, carrying an unconscious but still alive Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, twenty-three-years old and physically strong, ran to see her, then suddenly headed toward the children’s bedroom. Monaghan and another man restrained him. “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection,” Monaghan said. “I received a black eye.” One of the first firemen at the scene told investigators, at an earlier point, he also restrained Willingham. “Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to try and go into the house,” he said. Willingham was taken to a hospital, where he was told Amber, who was found in the master bedroom, died from smoke inhalation. Kameron and Karmon were discovered lying on the children’s bedroom floor, their bodies severely burned but they too, died from smoke inhalation. A community collection helped the Willingham’s pay for the funerals of their children.

Fire investigators, tried to determine the cause of the tragedy. Willingham gave authorities permission to search the house: “I know we might not ever know all the answers, but I’d just like to know why my babies were taken from me,” he said.

Douglas Fogg, the assistant fire chief in Corsicana, conducted the initial investigation. He’d been fighting fires or what he calls “the beast”—for more than twenty years, and was a certified arson investigator. “You learn that fire talks to you,” Fogg would later say. He was soon joined by one of the leading arson investigators in Texas, a deputy fire marshal called Manuel Vasquez who had an extremely high opinion of his own abilities. He would frequently say: “Fire does not destroy evidence—it creates it.” And: “The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” Vasquez was convinced there was very little he didn’t know about the crime of arson. Once, he was asked under oath whether he had ever been mistaken in a case. “If I have, sir, I don’t know,” he responded. “It’s never been pointed out.”

Vasquez and Fogg visited the Willinghams’ fire gutted house four days after the blaze. Following the investigators protocol, they moved from the least burned areas to the worst. “It is a systematic method,” Vasquez later testified. “I’m just collecting information. . . . I have not made any determination. I don’t have any preconceived idea.” The men slowly toured the perimeter of the house, taking notes and photographs before entering the burned out building. In the kitchen, Vasquez and Fogg found only smoke and heat damage—a sign that this was not the source of the fire. In the master bedroom, where Amber’s body was found, most of the damage was also from smoke and heat, which suggested that the fire began down the hallway. The two arson investigators noticed deep charring along the base of the walls. Because hot gases from the burning become buoyant, flames will ordinarily burn upward. But Vasquez and Fogg discovered that the fire burned low down, causing peculiar char patterns on the floor, shaped like puddles. Vasquez followed the “burn trailer”—the path burned by the fire—which led from the hallway into the children’s bedroom. According to arson experts, flammable or combustible liquid doused on a floor can cause a fire to concentrate in these kinds of pockets, which is why investigators describe them as “pour patterns” or “puddle configurations.” In the Willingham fire, the floor had some of the deepest burn marks and Vasquez concluded it was hotter than the ceiling. Given that heat rises, this was, in his words, “not normal.” Fogg examined a piece of glass from one of the broken windows. It contained a spiderweb-like pattern—which fire investigators call “crazed glass.” Forensic experts describe the effect as a key indicator that the fire burned “fast and hot,” meaning it was, more than likely, fuelled by a liquid accelerant, causing the glass to fracture.

The men then looked again at what appeared to be a distinct burn trail through the house. It went from the children’s bedroom, into the corridor, then turned to the right and out the front door. Even the wood under the door’s aluminum frame was charred. On the concrete floor of the front porch, Vasquez and Fogg noticed something else they thought was unusual: brown stains, which, they reported, were consistent with the presence of an accelerant.  Vasquez identified three places where, in his opinion, the fire originated: in the hallway, in the children’s bedroom, and at the front door. Vasquez would later testify that multiple origins pointed to one conclusion: the fire was “intentionally set by human hands.” Both investigators claimed to have a clear vision of what happened. Someone had poured liquid accelerant throughout the children’s room, then poured more along the adjoining hallway and out the front door, creating a “fire barrier” that stopped anyone from escaping.

The investigators collected samples of burned materials from the house and sent them to a laboratory that could detect the presence of liquid accelerant. The lab’s chemist reported that one of the samples, taken near the front door, contained evidence of “mineral spirits,” a substance often found in charcoal-lighter fluid.  The fire was now considered to be arson and this was a triple homicide. Cameron Todd Willingham—the only person, other than the victims, inside the house at the time of the fire—became the prime suspect.

But as you will learn in part two of this story, looks can be very deceiving and what may seem like damning evidence can suddenly become discredited by the simplest of explanations.

Female Doctors Who Are Sexually Harassed Are Advised To Get On Their Knees Rather Than Complain – If They Want A Career

The medical profession in general, and surgeons in particular, enjoy an exalted status. It would be churlish not to say, deservedly so. Surgeons save lives, have great skills, earn salaries equivalent to the GDP of a small African country. But lately some aspects of the profession, and some individuals in it, are beginning to resemble the Emperor’s new clothes. The pedestal, they’ve been standing on, is listing 45 degrees.

And it’s all because of an Australian vascular surgeon called Gabrielle McMullin.

The fact that she is Australian, although I mention it, really is irrelevant. She could have come from anywhere in the world and her comments would, on the balance of probabilities, apply. McMullin didn’t shatter the glass ceiling for women so much as demolish the entire building, Metaphorically speaking, she threw a hand grenade into possibly the biggest and oldest boy’s club on the planet. What is so intriguing about McMullin was the fairly innocuous way that she went about it.

McMullin was speaking at the launch of a book she co-authored about gender equality ahead of International Women’s Day. Not to put too fine a point on it, she effectively blew the whistle on sexual harassment in the medical profession, though to be honest whistles weren’t strictly speaking what she was referring to about being blown. McMullin told the story of a young female neurosurgeon. The daughter anyone would wish to have. Excelled at school, always wanted to be a doctor. She was training and going places. Then a particular established neurosurgeon with a big reputation took her under his wing. Except of course he did more than that, didn’t he. The neurosurgeon with the big reputation keep asking her back to his rooms after hours. On one particular occasion she felt it would be rude to refuse. So she didn’t. It was dark, there was no one around and he sexually assaulted her. The young woman doctor was horrified, ran out of the room but told no one. Then she began to receive bad professional reports. She was lazy and incompetent and all of her years of hard work were in danger of ending in total failure. So, she complained and won her case. But she didn’t. As McMullin told her somewhat spellbound audience, despite her legal victory that young doctor has never been appointed to a public position in any hospital in Australasia. Her career ruined by this one guy, who on one particular night, asked for sex and was refused. Then McMullin very demurely dropped a clanger that is reverberating around the entire medical profession in this country. McMullin said realistically that young female doctor would have been better off giving that neurosurgeon, with the big reputation, a blow job that night. McMullin then went on to say : “ What I tell my trainees is that, if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do in terms of your career is to comply with the request. The worst thing you could possibly do is to complain to the supervising body, because then, you can be sure, that you will never be appointed to a major public hospital.”

According to McMullin, to put it bluntly, gaining entry into medicine for women opens the door to a career marred by rampant sexism, and she says women need to be vigilant. “ We need to teach our trainees never to put themselves in a vulnerable position like that, no matter how nice, married and well-meaning the man seems,” McMullin said.

Now, it might come as no surprise that these comments caused a small earthquake. A number of people and groups have been dismayed by McMullin’s observations. A spokesperson for the Victorian Centre Against Sexual Assault, called the advice “appalling” and “irresponsible,” arguing that perpetrators thrive on not being challenged about their behaviour. “I would have thought highly trained professionals would be able to operate a better system than that,” the spokesperson said. “I actually don’t think that’s acceptable advice in this day and age.”

Similarly, the Head of Domestic Violence Victoria said: “It’s a sad indictment on us and the community when this is what women are being advised to do to benefit their career.”

Of course they miss the true meaning of what McMullin was saying. She was in no way condoning this kind of behaviour, far from it. The point she was making is that in one of the hardest University courses to enter and pass, where intellectually you have to be at the top of your game in a genre that represents the best and the brightest, there is still a sexist, chauvinist, misogynist boys club in the medical profession where women are expected to be on their knees at the beck and call of men. I may be overstating it slightly but you get my drift. Of course not all male doctors behave this way and it would be unfair and wrong to tar them with the one brush. But enough of them do and if women complain then their career is chopped liver. McMullin was being an anarchist and like all good anarchists she knew exactly where to throw the bomb.

And while she’s had her critics, Gabrielle McMullin also has her supporters. Plenty of women doctors have come out and publicly said it’s all true I tell you. One of them was compelled to publicly defend McMullin in a national daily newspaper. She wrote: “ Now lets consider the hundreds of other cases. The ones who didn’t make the news. The ones who, excuse my vulgarity, ‘got on their knees’, because it was easier. The ones who were too scared to tell anyone their boss made a pass at them. Or the ones who did confide in another doctor only to be told ‘keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine’. Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine seems to be medicine’s catchphrase.

“ Dr McMullin is not the problem here. She is simply the messenger. The problem here is a system where reporting sexual harassment is vehemently discouraged. A system where a young doctor successfully takes her assailant to court and is never employed by that system again. A system where big names have stood up this week and said sexual harassment is not a problem in medicine. A quick glance at the female doctors I follow on twitter would disagree. We all have stories about sexual harassment at work some of them subtle, some of them shocking. And yet person after person (mostly men, although I can’t imagine why), have stood up and said sexual harassment is not a problem in medicine.”

Other female doctors also spoke to the newspaper. One of them said that male surgeons had routinely called her a “dumb b****” and a surgeon had told her to “get some knee pads and learn to suck c***”.

Another female doctor said there was a long history of reports of sexual assault and harassment being dealt with poorly, and that surgical careers of victims who spoke out were “obliterated”.

As you might expect, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons was horrified by McMullin’s comments. The college issued a statement which said: it was “very disappointing and quite appalling that recent media reports have suggested that it is preferable for female surgical trainees to silently endure sexual harassment. “The college of Surgeons refutes this advice emphatically. “The inference is that this is what successful female surgeons and trainees have done in the past and this is deeply insulting.”

It sounds to me like a lot of RACS huffing and puffing. Surely what is really disappointing is that this kind of behaviour is happening at all. I will be honest and say for the life of me I can’t understand gender bias of any description. What is important is someone being good at their job. And if they are that’s the only thing that matters. I personally couldn’t care less who or what they are. And neither should anyone else. But I can’t help thinking was Gabrielle McMullin giving that advice from personal observation or personal experience? She was never asked nor did she volunteer an answer to that question. I will just suggest away the suggestion that there might have been more to it than just Gabrielle McMullin speaking up and out for her female colleagues. Not that any of this matters in the scheme of things.

The Australian Medical Association also weighed into the debate. Spokesman Doctor Saxon Smith said medicine had moved in a different direction in the past 20 years. “ Sure if you go back further than that then it may well be the case,” Smith said. “ But we know increasingly and the trend is that every graduating year for medicine is more female than male. There is a tide to turn.”

On behalf of female doctors I would like to say about bloody time and the tide can’t turn soon enough.

The Wellness Warrior Loses Her Fight For Life And To Prove Gerson Therapy Actually Works

I hesitated before writing this. You can claim the high moral ground. The truth may well be on your side. Yet no matter what you say or do it sounds like a cheap shot. Kicking someone when they are down. It seems like an empty, pathetic gesture, even though, metaphorically speaking, they probably deserve to be kicked. It makes me worry about all kinds of things. I worry about the blowback because it’s always friends and family left to pick up the pieces and do the defending. It’s a moral dilemma but I’ve made the call so here we are.

Ok.

This concerns the life and death of a 30-year-old Australian woman, called Jessica Ainscough, who was known as the Wellness Warrior. Images and video of Ainscough always showed her full of life, and the picture of health. But reality told a very different story. She may be called the Wellness Warrior but Jessica Ainscough was extremely unwell. She suffered from Epithelioid sarcoma, an incredibly rare, slow-growing cancer, in her case, first diagnosed in 2008. When I talk about rare form of cancer, the incidence, is in the order of 0.1 to 0.4 per million. It’s primarily a tumor that affects young adults, and it nearly always appears on the upper extremities, and wide surgical excision (which is doctor speak for amputation) is the only known effective treatment. It also tends to be a lethargic or lazy form of cancer, the antithesis of aggressive and fast growing. Patients diagnosed with Epithelioid sarcoma, have a ten year survival rate of 61%, but for patients aged between 17 and 30 years, in other words, just like Jessica Ainscough, the survival rate is much higher, about 72%. So that’s good news? Right? Well actually no it isn’t. Survival depends on treatment. And in this case the treatment is on par with the illness. Maybe, it’s even worse. The first line of treatment recommended consists of a very disfiguring amputation that in reality is more like a forequarter amputation. It’s an amputation that involves removing not just the arm, but the entire shoulder joint and the shoulder blade. It would have left Ainscough, without an arm, and a shoulder as well. It’s a seldom-performed operation and a wretched choice to be forced to make, unpalatable and disfiguring surgery. But, if it’s the difference between living and dying what choice do you have? Well, as it turns out, there are choices and there are choices. Ainscough made a number of choices. One of them, was choosing not to have the surgery. And, no surprises, making that choice meant living with the consequences. Without surgery, five-year survival rates drop alarmingly to 35 percent and ten-year survival, to 33 percent. As surgical oncologist and blogger, David Gorski, wrote so succinctly: “Jess Ainscough had a shot, one shot. She didn’t take it. What saddens me even more is that I can understand why she didn’t take it, as, through a horrible quirk of fate, her one shot involved incredibly disfiguring surgery and the loss of her arm.”

Ainscough would later write that she had prepared herself mentally to undergo the surgery, but doctors came to her at the last minute with an alternative, which was to do, what is known as isolated limb perfusion. According to the medical experts this is a technique sometimes used for soft tissue sarcomas of a limb or multifocal melanoma that can’t be removed without amputation to destroy the tumor. As the name implies, the limb is isolated from the body’s circulatory system and infused with very extremely high toxic doses of chemotherapy. The dose of chemotherapy is so high if it leaked back into the rest of the body’s circulation, the consequences could be catastrophic. Isolated limb perfusion can result in seemingly near miraculous results, and apparently that was the case for Ainscough. Unfortunately, the tumours tend to recur, and again that’s exactly what happened to Ainscough about a year later, which led to doctors recommending an amputation of her arm at the shoulder again.It was at that point that Ainscough rejected that option and became the Wellness Warrior. But, in assuming that title, Ainscough made a number of decisions that would be life changing in the truest sense of the words.

She put a stop to conventional medical treatment of her cancer in favour of Gerson therapy. A lot could be said about Gerson therapy but probably less is more. First of all, it claims to be able to cure cancer without a single shred of scientific evidence to prove or verify that claim. Gerson therapy involves eating extreme amounts of fruit and vegetables and undergoing up to six coffee enemas a day. Advocates of the therapy claim it allows the body to heal itself by boosting the immune system and removing “toxins”, despite there being no evidence that most cancer is caused by specific toxins or poisons in the body, or that these toxins can be flushed out by diet and coffee enemas, or even that a healing immune response exists, that if stimulated in this manner, could seek out and kill cancer cells. Emertius Professor John Dwyer from the University of New South Wales Medical School says coffee enemas are one of the worst forms of treatment because they can cause deadly bowel perforations. Gerson therapy also advocates the consumption of clay. Yes clay, to “detoxify the body.” This is what Ainscough wrote: “ When we eat clay, the positively charged toxins are attracted by the negatively charged edges of the clay mineral. An exchange reaction occurs where the clay swaps its ions for those of the other substance. Electrically satisfied, it holds the toxin in suspension until the body can eliminate both.”

If you think it sounds like arrant nonsense that’s because it is. Gerson therapy is many things. It is also mega expensive. Its clinic itemizes the charges for undergoing the therapy, which include a two week stay at a cost of US$11,000, travel expenses not included. Then you add the cost of the special juicer you must buy for US$2400, organic produce for one month US$750-$1200. In fact they recommend buying a second refrigerator just so you can store the large amounts of fruit vegetables and other supplements needed for the treatment.

The young, likeable, media savvy Jess Ainscough became the poster child for Gerson therapy. She wrote books, she appeared on television, made videos on Youtube explaining how to administer coffee enemas. She sold cookbooks and cooking supplies all the while extolling the virtues and curative properties of Gerson therapy and listing in detail all of various supplements she took as part of the treatment.

When she began Gerson therapy this is what she wrote:

“Some of you might think the list (of supplements) is a bit extreme, but I assure you that it is totally manageable. It’s nowhere near as much of a pain in the ass to get through as the medicine cabinet full of pills and potions I was taking prior to Gerson. I swear, as soon as we heard that a supplement had anti-cancer properties, I was all over it. I’ve taken everything from seacucumbers to bovine cartilage. This list is like a trip to the beach in comparison. The supplements a Gerson patient must take generally varies to suit the individual. But all the medications are designed to support the diet therapy by increasing the energy capacity of the cell and by increasing the rate of detoxification. “

But by the end of 2014, Jessica Ainscough’s health was deteriorating. She wrote this in a blog post:

“When I left you …….to begin a period of self-care hibernation, my plan was to get my health back in tip top shape and then spend some time creating some awesome new stuff for you. The reality, however, is that I’ve spent the whole time focused on my health. For the last few months, I’ve been pretty much bedridden. Let me fill you in on what’s been going on with me … This year absolutely brought me to my knees. I’ve been challenged, frightened, and cracked open in ways I never had before. For the first time in my almost seven year journey with cancer, this year I’ve been really unwell. I’ve lived with cancer since 2008 and for most of those years my condition was totally stable. I’ve had scans to detect what’s going on in my body, and I can report that the disease is still contained to my left arm and shoulder, however I do have a big fungating tumour mass in that shoulder that’s causing me dramas. Over 10 months of non-stop bleeding from the armpit has rendered me really weak (and uncomfortable) and as a result I’ve had no choice but to stop absolutely everything and rest. “

There was also the strong indication that she had finally returned to conventional cancer treatment. She wrote: “ I believe that as a result of my willingness to stop controlling my healing path and surrender to whatever the universe has up its sleeves to help me , I’ve attracted the most amazing healing team. I’m working with an oncologist who is kind, caring and non-judgemental – completely unlike any of the specialists I worked with in the early days of my journey. When we are open and in a state of surrender, the right people/situations/tools will appear. Final decisions and plans are now in process and I’ll keep you in the loop in the New Year.”

As I said at the start, I never wanted this to sound like I am attacking Jessica Ainscough. On the contrary I admire her. I think she was incredibly brave and courageous. I understand her desperation. And I am very sad that she is dead. There is also absolutely nothing wrong with cancer patients seeking alternative treatments so long as the treatment is in addition to what conventional medicine has to offer. In other words having both.

Ian Olver, the head of the Sansom Institute at the University of South Australia, says most people with cancer try alternative treatments, but the danger is when they become the replacement for conventional treatment. “Even if something has been reported in the press as working for someone, the critical figures are, will it work for 1 in 10 people, 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000, and that’s what evidence-based medicine is about,” Olver says. “In our health system you can basically be treated in the public system without a great outlay [of money], but sometimes they ask you to pay hundreds of dollars a week for alternative therapies”.

Jessica Ainscough was the poster child for Gerson therapy. I take no pleasure or satisfaction from saying she was also the poster child for why it doesn’t work.

Ainscough’s father released a statement on behalf of the family, which is how Jessica Ainscough should be remembered: “I’m so proud of my beautiful daughter for her achievements, style, grace, sincerity and affection. We are deeply appreciative of all the love and support coming in from around the world.”