2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?

(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)

Update: Heartbreaking New Yorker article shreds the state’s case.

Polling data reveals interesting things about U.S. public opinion and the death penalty. If you ask an open-ended question about the death penalty –- for example, “Do you feel the death penalty is appropriate for certain egregious crimes?” –- then you usually see somewhere around a 65 to 35 percent split in favor. On the other hand, if you ask which is preferred – the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the results tend to be closer to 50-50.

Upon occasion, another question is asked: Do you feel an innocent person has been put to death in the U.S.? The results are pretty emphatic: Americans don’t trust their government to get it right, and they do believe innocent people have been executed, by a ratio of about three to one.

So the question fairly arises: Have innocent people been executed in the U.S. in what we sometimes refer to as the “modern era,” i.e., since executions were allowed to resume in 1976?

Enter Cameron Todd Willingham.

On Feb. 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was strapped to a gurney in a Texas death chamber as he declared his innocence for the last time. Minutes later, he was executed by lethal injection. In December of the same year, the Chicago Tribune uncovered secrets behind the Willingham case, addressing questions left unanswered and raising doubts left unacknowledged.

The Fatal Fire

Cameron Todd Willingham with one of his purported victims — his daughter, Amber.

On Dec. 23, 1991, Willingham was at home with his three daughters. His wife, Stacy, left their home in the morning to pay the bills and shop for Christmas gifts at a Salvation Army store. The family had been struggling that year; Todd, as everyone called him, had recently been laid off, and Stacy was supporting the family with her wages from a bar. The Willinghams were two months behind on rent, and they had even stopped paying some bills in order to save money for Christmas.

Willingham recalled waking up briefly as his wife was leaving the home around 9 a.m. When he heard their one-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron, crying, he woke up to feed them and went back to sleep. About an hour later, his two-year-old daughter Amber woke him with her cries, and the house was already full of smoke. Willingham remembers not being able to see “anything but black” toward the front of the house.

The circuits were popping throughout the home as Willingham frantically went to his daughters’ bedroom. At this point, his hair caught on fire, and he was able to see little more than the glowing of the ceiling. Willingham called out for his children and felt along the floor and bed for them, but he could not find them. This is when debris began falling from the ceiling, causing him to burn his shoulder. He fled the home through the front door.

After fleeing his house, he asked his neighbors to call the fire department and screamed to them, “My babies is in there and I can’t get them out.” A neighbor, Mary Barbee, then asked other neighbors to place the call because her own telephone was disconnected. Willingham reported that, while this was happening, he tried to re-enter his home, but it was too hot. Then, he knocked out two bedroom windows with a pool cue, but could not get into the bedroom.

Buvin Smith arrived on the scene after hearing the neighbor’s call over a radio scanner. Smith remembered restraining Willingham from going onto the porch, and heard him yelling that his “babies were in the house” and noticed that he was “acting real hysterical.”

A Circumstantial Case

Almost immediately, Willingham became a suspect. According to the Chicago Tribune, prosecutors often are able to rely on circumstantial evidence in cases when a child dies and the parent survives. In this case, the prosecution convinced the jury that Willingham killed his children because they interfered with his beer-drinking, dart-throwing lifestyle. The jury believed it.

Neighbors told investigators that they did not believe Willingham tried hard enough to save his children. In fact, Barbee said that she saw Willingham standing by the fence as heavy smoke came out of the windows. Also, she told investigators that Willingham seemed more concerned with moving his car away from the burning house as the windows blew out than with saving his children.

Willingham’s wounds were treated shortly after the fire. Firefighters did not think that his burns were severe enough had he indeed searched for his daughters in the manner he described. His shoulder, back, and hair were burned, but his bare feet were not burned at the bottom.

Police stated that, the day after the fire, Willingham complained about not being able to find a dartboard in the wreckage of his home. Others mentioned hearing loud music and laughter in the following days as the couple attempted to salvage their belongings.

A police chaplain grew suspicious that Willingham’s hysterics during the fire were not genuine. The chaplain, George Monaghan, noted that Willingham seemed “too distraught.”

In addition to these evaluations of Willingham’s behavior, fire investigators reported over 20 indicators of arson. These include the “crazed glass,” or the web-like cracks in the glass. Until more recent research was completed, arson specialists believed this to be a clear indication that an accelerant had been used in the fire. The fire experts also noted that the fire had reached a stage known as flashover, when a fire reaches such a high temperature that an explosion results. This further supported their reasoning that an accelerant had been used.

Willingham was charged with murder on Jan. 8, 1992, just two weeks after the fire. In August of the same year, his trial began, after Willingham turned down a deal from the prosecution and insisted that he was innocent. During the trial prosecutors presented inmate Johnny E. Webb as a witness. He testified that Willingham confessed at the county jail to killing his children in order to cover up the fact that his wife, Stacy, had been physically abusing them. Webb, a recovering drug addict, was taking psychiatric medication to relieve post-traumatic stress syndrome. The prosecution also presented as witnesses the neighbors who claimed that Willingham should have done more. Fire investigators Doug Fogg and Manuel Vasquez also testified at Willingham’s trial. Both of these investigators testified in court that the fire was caused by arson.

Both of these investigators testified to assumptions about fire that have been scientifically proven to be wrong.

Forensic Evidence Reconsidered

When the Chicago Tribune investigated the case, several experts reviewed documents, trial testimony, and video documentation of the fire scene and concluded that the original investigation was terribly flawed. Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist, and John Lentini, John DeHaan, both private consultants specializing in fire investigation, along with Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland, examined the materials. They suggest that this fire may have been simply accidental.

After the Chicago Tribune investigation, Lentini worked with the Innocence Project to assemble an independent, peer-review panel of arson experts. The five-member panel –- with a combined 138 years in high-level fire investigation experience –- issued a 44-page report (.pdf) on the case.

They determined that “each and every one” of the forensic interpretations made by the state’s experts at Willingham’s trial was not scientifically valid. For example, the original investigators determined that an accelerant was used because wood cannot burn hot enough to melt aluminum. In fact, according to these leading experts, it can.

The 1991 investigators also claimed that the brown rings on the Willingham’s front porch indicated accelerant usage. Experts called this “baseless speculation,” explaining that fire-hose water often leaves brown rings on surfaces after evaporation.

Was it Known Before the Execution?

This information didn’t only come to light recently. Shortly before Willingham was executed, Hurst reviewed the case and issued a report that dismissed every single indicator of arson Fogg and Vasquez had originally cited. What was done with this report? Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned it aside, confident of Willingham’s guilt.

Jury members are less confident now. One jury member asked, “Did anybody know about this prior to his execution? Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.”

In fact, a similar debunking of arson forensics by the same expert resulted in another Texas death row inmate’s exoneration and release — just seven months after Willingham was put to death.

Have innocent people been executed in the U.S.? Indeed they have. You can read more about other cases at www.InnocentAndExecuted.org

Update: After a 2009 New Yorker expose made Cameron Todd Willingham a byword for wrongful executions, our guest author’s former shop, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, took a cue from Justice Antonin Scalia‘s scornful dismissal of the prospect.

There has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

On this day..

39 thoughts on “2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?

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  19. If these creatures deliberately buried, or on their own volition disregarded the findings of these experts, then they are guilty of murder and aught to be tried for it! I would never trust any court with someones life! and vermin like these are good reason not to!

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  23. 1) EXCLUSIVE: City report on (Willingham) arson probe:
    State panel asks for city response in Willingham case


    2) No Doubts


    3) “Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
    “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann


    This was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall’s report.

  24. You have really reached to the core my sympathy. If I didn’t live in Corsicana, and didn’t know better, I would think that Todd was some innocent victim who never attempted to kill his family, finally succeeding. True the guy was so nutty that they didn’t bother to handle his case better. But guilty he was. Although I believe that some have been innocently put to death. This is not the one. But I’m sure you will stir some people up with this rhetoric and maybe even cause some to go march against the death penalty. Abolishing any penalty for crime is counter-productive to society. The justice system is in dire need of repair, but this isn’t the place to start.
    Good luck in your quest.

  25. This happens because of prosecutors with personal political agendas; favors returned to friends in the legal community, lawyers on both sides who are not well prepared honest and knowledgeable. and last but not least judges that intentionally prevent testimony that would find the defendant innocent from being used in court.

    Solutions? start electing your judges: solution? elect our prosecutors. solution? recall wayward judges, prosecutors and politicians.. Mr. Obama brought to light what a few of us knew already..it’s is OUR government and these human being’s blood are on our conscious for failure to exercise the privilege of living in a democracy. Case closed.

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  27. If you are shocked that Texas executed a person who was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, then join us in Austin at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.


    At the 7th Annual March in 2006, the family of Todd Willingham attended and delivered a letter to Governor Perry that said in part:

    “We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.”

    “Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.”

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  29. When there is any question at all, the DP should not be employed as the punishment. In some cases there is no question. This is not one of those. He may very well have been innocent. Maybe not. That isn’t the issue. (Well, it was to him, but not to society as a whole…) The issue is of doubt and certainty. When there is any doubt at all, we should always err on the side of caution. There is no way to reverse the sentence when death is the penalty. Better that 100 guilty go unpunished than one is punished unfairly. That should be the American way. Seems we have strayed from the founder’s principles.

  30. This is too serious a subject for such one-sided journalism. The writer is certainly entitled to his opinion, and I might well agree with him. But he advances his cause very little by presenting every countervailing consideration as if only a fool could entertain it.

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  35. Dear God. How many others? We don’t have the d.p. over here, but I do think there are cases in the UK and the US that merit it. However I know innocent people were hanged in the UK. There are many others, such as Bradley and Hindley about whom there was never any doubt whatsoever and have cost this country a fortune to keep alive (Hindley is dead now). I do feel deeply divided about the d.p. – half of me says “Yes” and the other half says “No”.

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