Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire

it on fire. And when it finished burning, it looked just exactly like the carpet did in Todd Willingham’s house.

(It’s funny how the lead prosecuting and defense attorneys from Willingham’s trial turned into the Odd Couple when the media was all over the case last fall. They saved the priceless moments for TV. Prosecutor John Jackson went off the deep end on Nightline, and Martin played the cowboy buffoon — perhaps a drunken one — on CNN. Maybe the special strength of TV journalism is that it gives fools a chance to really be fools. And you can sure see how junk science would flourish if these guys are at all typical. Jackson, completely oblivious to the way fire burns and fluid flows, thinks Willingham used accelerant to burn the shape of a pentagram into his floor. Martin, on the other hand, goes out back like a kid playing with matches and proves to himself that burnt carpet looks like burnt carpet. In the interview he even urges folks to try it at home.)

Like any good Monday-morning quarterback, I’m convinced that the prosecutor’s case against Willingham was far more vulnerable than the trial suggests. For instance, the conflict that Craig Beyler pointed out between the eyewitness observations and the inspectors’ theory seems like something that could be presented in a compelling way to a jury. But it would be silly of me to try to convince anyone that Willingham would have walked if only the defense had made this argument or introduced that evidence. And what I think I’ve learned browsing defense attorneys’ blogs is that the way Martin approached his role and his client was hopelessly narrow. That’s a more fundamental problem, and a more interesting way to look at what went wrong.

On CNN, Martin described an approach to defense that’s purely reactive.

The role of the defense attorney is to test the state’s evidence. Vigorous

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