This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
It was two days before Christmas, 1991. A house fire raged in Corsicana, Texas with three beautiful babies in it. They didn’t survive. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham stood outside as emergency crews arrived, becoming hysterical followed by calm, followed by inexplicable actions like moving his car away from the fire. Neighbours and witnesses described his behaviour as “strange”.
Once the fire was extinguished, investigators quickly swept the premises for evidence. Puddle-shaped burn patterns on the floor and suspicions that the fire burned fast, quickly led law enforcement to the conclusion that this was an accelerant-fueled act of arson. Willingham, being the only survivor who had been present when the fire started, was arrested.
Other than the puddle shaped burn patterns and indications of high heat left behind by the fire that killed his three daughters, the only evidence against Willingham were witnesses who claimed he exhibited strange behaviour, a jailhouse snitch who claimed Willingham confessed to him, and an “expert” witness who claimed his Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin posters, along with a skull and dagger tattoo, could only mean Willingham was a psychopath.
Willingham was charged with the murder of his three children. There is no question that a guilty verdict for this crime in Texas would lead to Willingham’s swift execution.
At trial, prosecution concocted a story in the absence of a true motive, claiming Cameron killed his babies to cover up abuse that had been occurring in the home. This was their story, despite the fact that Willingham’s wife (who had been Christmas shopping at the time of the fire) gave a statement that Cameron had never hurt their children, and that the kids were, in fact, spoiled. Evidence for said abuse could not be produced.
Johnny Webb, who had shared a cell with Willingham, testified that the father had confessed to setting the fire. Prosecution was adamant they had not offered any sort of reduced sentence in exchange for Webb’s testimony.
Hearsay, strange behaviour and puddle-shaped burn patterns made up the entirety of the case against Willingham and in bloodthirsty Texas, that was enough. Willingham was sentenced to die.
The death sentence was to be carried out in February of 2004, and just a month prior, Governor Rick Perry received a report from Gerald Hurst, an experienced arson investigator, who discredited all the evidence in the original investigation that led to the assumption of arson. Hurst’s opinion was that the evidence was not consistent with arson. If this were true, it would mean no murder had occurred at all.
With this report sitting on his desk, Governor Rick Perry allowed the execution to take place. Willingham’s life ended on February 17th, 2004 via lethal injection. His last words were,
Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man — convicted of a crime I did not commit. 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 — so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you, Gabby.
After Willingham’s punishment had been carried out, Hurst continued to investigate the forensic evidence in the case, coming to the conclusion, once again, that “There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire.”
These questions haunted a lot of people for years and in 2009, the Texas Forensic Science Commission asked Dr. Craig Beyler to take another look at the case. Beyler concluded that “a finding of arson could not be sustained” and that the original investigators had used anything but scientific methods and thinking to reach their conclusion that arson had taken place.
Over time, nine of the most respected arson investigators in the United States of America had reviewed the case and agreed with Hurst and Beyler. What had happened in the Willingham home was not consistent with arson. Further, Webb, the jailhouse snitch, sent a letter to Willingham’s prosecutors recanting his testimony and in 2014, the Innocence Project uncovered evidence that suggested he had been promised a reduced sentence in return for his testimony.
Nine of the top arson investigators in the country agreed this was not arson and no crime here had been committed. The Jailhouse snitch recanted his testimony. The only evidence left against Willingham was the fact that he exhibited strange behaviour after the fire, and the testimony of a psychologist calling him a dangerous psychopath because of his Led Zeppelin poster.
It’s pretty clear here that there is far more than just reasonable doubt as to Willingham’s guilt. It’s also clear that law enforcement and the prosecution were only acting to serve the law and the memories of the Willingham’s deceased children. However, what is also clear, is that when given a last minute opportunity to put off the execution and re-examine this case, Governor Rick Perry just wanted blood. No one asked him to set Willingham free. No one asked him to commute his sentence to life in prison. All that was asked for, was a stay so that the case could be looked at once again. You know, to make sure that the man the state was about to slaughter had actually committed murder in the first place.
Governor Rick Perry displayed behaviour in the aftermath of some these doubts re: arson that suggested perhaps he was trying to cover up the execution of an innocent man. He shuffled members of the Forensics Commission around and his new appointees cancelled meetings that surely would have brought attention to the very significant doubts that were present in the Willingham case prior to the man’s execution. It would highlight the fact that Perry had opportunity and reason to stay the execution, but went ahead with it with a cool lack of concern for life.
What happened here is not for certain, but if nine top arson experts are correct, a grieving father was put to death for a crime that didn’t even take place.
- Wikipedia – Cameron Todd Willingham
- Trial By Fire – The New Yorker
- The Innocence Project – Cameron Todd Willingham
- Man Executed on Disproved Forensics – Chicago Tribune
- Cameron Todd Willingham case: Expert says fire for which father was executed was not arson
- Incendiary – Documentary
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If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at email@example.com