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Copyright (c) 2011 Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy
Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy

NOTE: Let Him Be Heard: The Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel on Post-Conviction Appeal in Capital Cases

Spring, 2011

Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy

18 Geo. J. Poverty Law & Pol'y 247


Amy Breglio *



In August of 1992, a Texas jury deliberated for only an hour before sentencing Todd Willingham to death for killing his three young girls by, setting fire to his home. 3 In making its case, the prosecution relied extensively on the scientific evidence introduced by Manuel Vasquez, who had investigated more than twelve hundred fires and was considered one of the state's leading arson experts. 4 Based on Vasquez's investigation the burn patterns and shattered glass left behind by the fire conclusively proved that Willingham had poured lighter fluid throughout the house and under his daughters' beds and then lit the fire as he was retreating from the house. 5 Given the wealth of scientific evidence against Willingham, the case appeared to be "airtight." 6 Willingham's own lawyers, who were public defenders assigned by the state, believed it was "a classic arson case" and that "all the evidence showed that he was one hundred percent guilty." 7 Although Willingham's prior record indicated no propensity for murder--it included only non-violent offenses such as shoplifting, stealing a bicycle, and driving under the influence--it was no surprise to the small Texas town when the jury quickly returned a capital sentence. After exhausting his last appeal, Todd Willingham was killed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004. 8

After Willingham's execution, the expert testimony that was so crucial to securing his conviction was reexamined and largely discredited. A commission established in Texas in 2005 to investigate allegations of error and ...
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