2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?

36 comments February 17th, 2008 David Elliot

(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.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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