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“Total idiots” in Corsicana Strike Back at Scientific Reports that Todd Willingham Fire Was Not Arson

By , September 8, 2009

The Corsicana Daily Sun has been making up for lost time lately in the Willingham case, publishing several articles about the case since the report was released by Dr Craig Beyler that concluded that the fire in the Willingham case was not arson. The local paper started out Aug 29 publishing a column by Judge John Jackson that was so embarrassingly unprofessional coming from a judge that it could land him in trouble with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for casting discredit on the Texas judiciary. Now, the Corsicana Sun has a piece in which it rounds up the people who were involved in the trial and lets them embarrass themselves and the town of Corsicana by having them defend Willingham’s guilt even though a scientific analysis has concluded that a “a finding of arson could not be sustained”. Willingham’s defense lawyer David Martin comes across in the article as perhaps the biggest embarrassment not just for Corsicana but for the whole Texas justice system. Martin says “the Innocence Project is an absolute farce,” and Willingham “had no conscience.” “Why do monsters kill? They like killing, ” said Martin, the one person in the system at the trial that was supposed to defend Willingham. No wonder an innocent person got executed, having to rely on someone like Martin to defend him.

 southernjusticeThe whole cast of characters who speak in this article making their cases that they still believe Willingham was guilty, including the judge, the prosecutors, the fire investigators, the police and even the defense lawyer bring to mind the picture accompanying this post from another era of representatives of the Southern justice system. 

Here is the the Corsicana article.

Those closest to case shed no tears for Willingham

By Janet Jacobs

The undeniable facts of the Cameron Todd Willingham case are these:
• On Dec. 23, 1991, 2-year-old Amber Louise Kuykendall, and 1-year-old twins Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham died in a mid-morning house fire at 1213 W. 11th Ave. in Corsicana.
• Willingham, 23, the children’s father, and the only adult home at the time of the fire, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death on Aug. 21, 1992.
• After five appeals and 12 years on death row, he was put to death by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.
Everything else is controversial.
Carrying the torch
To people opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances, the holy grail is an innocent man who was executed, preferably in Texas, home of the nation’s busiest death row. Some argue Todd Willingham is that innocent man.
The latest argument for Willingham’s innocence comes from a report by Craig Beyler, of Hughes Associates in Baltimore, Md., and submitted Aug. 17 to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a panel formed in 2005 to deal with forensic errors.
Beyler was contracted to review the case following a complaint by the Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is best known for using DNA analysis to exonerate wrongly convicted men.
The report claims the Texas investigators didn’t understand fire science, and didn’t use modern methods in the Willingham case. Because one of the investigators was with the Texas fire marshal’s office, the marshal’s office will have a chance to respond to Beyler’s findings, and the commission should deliver a verdict next spring.
This week, the New Yorker published an article by David Grann which condemns the science and the system which sent a seemingly innocent man to his death. Part of the article is based on Willingham’s relationship with a woman who visited him on death row, and became an amateur sleuth on his behalf. Previous articles questioning the Willingham verdict have also appeared in the Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Tribune.
Leaders of the Innocence Project say this is proof of a failed death-penalty system.
“There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, in a release. “The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again.
“As long as our system of justice makes mistakes — including the ultimate mistake — we cannot continue executing people,” Scheck stated.
In Corsicana, the attempts to make Todd Willingham into a martyr aren’t well-received.
“He’s not a poster child for anybody,” said Sgt. Jimmie Hensley of the Corsicana Police Department.
First impressions
Doug Fogg, a Corsicana firefighter for 31 years, was the first responder to arrive at 1213 W. 11th Ave. in Corsicana that Monday morning. He conducted the local arson investigation.
Fogg calls Beyler an “armchair quarterback” and riles at the accusation that Corsicana and state detectives used nothing more than folklore to come to their conclusions.
“A lot of this stuff (in Beyler’s report) is misspoken or misinterpreted,” Fogg said.
The report accuses state arson investigator Manuel Vasquez, now deceased, of not securing the scene, of missing or mishandling crucial evidence that might have exonerated Willingham, and not using scientific fire analysis.
Willingham had a lot of excuses for the fire, Fogg recalled, including that a stranger entered the house and set the fire, that the 2-year-old started it, that a ceiling fan or squirrels in the attic caused an electrical short, or the gas space heaters in the children’s bedroom sparked it.
The investigators searched for electrical shorts, but found none; the gas-powered space heaters were off because the family’s gas supply had been cut off at the meter; and “we didn’t find a ceiling fan. Willingham said there was one, but we didn’t find any signs of one,” Fogg said.
The other explanations just didn’t add up, Fogg said, adding: “We eliminated all accidental causes.”
Evidence of accelerants was found, but Willingham had an excuse for that, too. Willingham told investigators he poured cologne on the children’s floor “because the babies liked the smell,” he blamed a kerosene lamp for any accelerant in the hallway, and said spilled charcoal-lighter fluid happened while he was grilling, Fogg recalled.
Fogg agreed that there was a damaged bottle of charcoal lighter fluid on the other end of the porch away from the door, but the grill was in the side yard not on the porch when firefighters arrived. Fogg remembered four empty bottles of charcoal lighter were found just outside the front door.
Beyler acknowledges that one sample did have accelerant in it, but said it was unidentified, a claim Fogg disputes.
Local investigators didn’t leave the house until midnight, spending over 12 hours sifting through the debris by hand, taking videotape and more than 80 photographs of the scene, cutting up flooring for the lab, bagging and dating each sample and recording where it came from in the house, Fogg said. Samples were contaminated by melted plastic toys, fire-damaged carpet and floor tiles, but it wasn’t because of investigator’s incompetence, Fogg said.
Beyler theorized it was a flashover, and said investigators didn’t see the difference between the intense heat of a flashover and an accelerant-driven fire. Fogg laughed at the notion.
If it had been a flashover, it would have taken out the thin layer of sheetrock on the walls, he argued.
“That house was box construction,” Fogg said. “The only sheetrock that came down was what was hit with water. The paper backing wasn’t even scorched.”
As well, the fire damage was worse at the floor level than at the ceilings, which is the opposite of typical fire, Fogg said.
“(Beyler) thought we were total idiots,” Fogg said.
Beyond the fire
Sgt. Jimmie Hensley of the Corsicana Police Department was the lead investigator on the Willingham murder case back in 1992.
For Hensley, the most damning evidence came from Willingham, who told officers that 2-year-old Amber woke him up. Firefighters later found her in his bed, with burns on the soles of her feet. Yet, Willingham didn’t take the girl with him when he fled, nor did he receive burns walking down that same hallway, Hensley pointed out.
Willingham was taken to the hospital where doctors did a blood-gas analysis on him, a standard test for someone who’s been inside a burning house.
“He had no more (carbon monoxide) than somebody who had just smoked a cigarette,” Hensley said.
Hensley has since become a certified arson investigator. In hindsight, he insists they took the right steps with the evidence in the Willingham case.
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” he said.
Hensley also dismisses Beyler’s report, pointing out that Beyler didn’t talk to the investigators, and reading the testimony can’t replace first-person observations.
“You can find expert witnesses everywhere, and if you pay them enough they’ll testify to anything,” Hensley said. “They’re to be bought.”
Willingham was tried for murder, not arson, and the guilty verdict was based on the whole picture, not just part of it, he said.
“You can’t just look at a little part. Look at the whole picture, and that’s what the jury did,” Hensley said. “If a 2-year-old wakes you up and there’s smoke and fire everywhere, aren’t you going to at least get that one out? It couldn’t possibly have happened the way (Willingham) said.”
Willingham’s behavior afterwards did not help his case. Todd Morris was the first police officer on the scene and he found Willingham trying to push his car away from the house to save it from the fire, while his children were inside burning up, Hensley said.
Dr. Grady Shaw and his team spent an hour at the emergency room trying to resuscitate Amber while next door Willingham complained about his own suffering, Shaw said.
“I remember this case very clearly,” Shaw said. “She was in Trauma Room 1, and her father was placed in Trauma Room 2, and only a curtain separated those. He was whining and complaining and crying out for a nurse to help him because of the pain from his extremely minor burns while we were trying to resuscitate this child.”
Willingham’s first-degree burns on the backs of his hands and on the back of his neck were the kind that might come from accidentally touching an oven rack, or having a small ember pop up from a campfire, Shaw said.
“He was not hurting that bad from these minor burns,” Shaw said. “It was clearly audible what was going on next door, but to hear him doing all that complaining and asking for attention when everybody was trying to save the little girl’s life was grossly inappropriate.”
Friends of the family testified that Willingham had beaten his wife in an attempt to abort the pregnancy of the twins, and many people assumed the murder of the children was more of the same, said John Jackson, former district judge and the lead prosecutor of the Willingham case.
“We really just believed the children inhibited his lifestyle,” Jackson said.
Hensley came away deeply disturbed by the case, and he’s angry that anti-death penalty proponents ignore the children’s deaths in trying to make Willingham into a martyr.
“In my opinion, justice was served,” Hensley said. “And it’s a shame he couldn’t have died three times, one for each of the little girls.”
Alan Bristol, who helped prosecute the case for the district attorney’s office, said Willingham was “one of the most evil people I’ve ever come in contact with in my life.”
“The guy was a sociopath,” he said. Willingham refused a polygraph, tortured and killed animals as a child, abused his wife repeatedly, thought more about losing his car than his children, and clearly lied about what happened in the deadly fire, Bristol said.
“None of the stories he told us panned out,” Bristol said. “He tried to make himself out to be a big hero, that he tried to go in and save the children, but there was no smoke in his lungs and he had only minor injuries.”
Bristol said the science for investigating fires may have changed over the last two decades, but the accelerant was there, and that evidence remains valid.
“I don’t have any doubt he did it, or was guilty,” Bristol said. “I think he would have been convicted whether we had the arson evidence or not.”
Willingham appealed his case, but the verdict was upheld. In the end, he asked for clemency that never materialized.
"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit,” Willingham said in his final moments. “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”
The article in the New Yorker quoted Willingham’s protest of innocence as his final words, but Loyd Cook of the Daily Sun was one of three media witnesses at the execution. Willingham’s actual final words were a venom-filled curse at his ex-wife as he attempted an obscene gesture, Cook reported.
“I hope you rot in hell, b—,” Willingham said before dying.
Stacy Kuykendall, who still lives in Navarro County, said she doesn’t talk about the case anymore. However, she did talk to Cook shortly before Willingham’s execution.
She refuted her ex-husband’s attempts to blame Amber, and came to her own conclusions that he killed their daughters. Kuykendall divorced Willingham while he was in prison, and married again. She did not have more children.
“Maybe some of the fear of him will leave me, but I’ll never get over what he did to my kids,” she said in 2004.
From his seat at the defense table, attorney David Martin’s job was to fight tooth and nail for Willingham. Once it was over, though, Martin became convinced his client was guilty. He dismisses the Beyler report as propaganda from anti-death penalty supporters.
“The Innocence Project is an absolute farce,” Martin said. “It’s a bunch of hype, in my opinion.”
The defense team couldn’t locate an arson expert back then willing to say the house fire was accidental.
“We never could find anybody that contradicted Vasquez,” Martin said.
As for motive, Martin agreed with investigators about Willingham’s character.
“He had no conscience,” Martin said. “Why do monsters kill? They like killing.”

Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas – (09-06-09) No doubts

7 Responses to ““Total idiots” in Corsicana Strike Back at Scientific Reports that Todd Willingham Fire Was Not Arson”

  1. Darren Motise says:

    Just awful. however, is it true about the hospital scene where Cameron was complaining about minor wounds when he daughter was dying on the other side of a curtain. And why was this and other details in this news article not included in the excellent Grann article? I had never heard that Cameron said he put cologne on the floor. I thought the investigators found “accelerant” only on the front porch. why then would he have needed to defend himself regarding it being elsewhere? and the Grann article didn’t mention anything about the four bottles of empty charcoal fluid. My question: are these people in this article making this stuff up to defend themselves and the state? are these lies or truths?

  2. pete muldoon says:

    Quotes from Jackson’s OpEd, along with my comments…

    (08-28-09) JACKSON: Guest Commentary – Willingham guilt never in doubt

    By the Hon. John Jackson, Guest Columnist
    (Originally published Aug. 28, 2009)

    The Corsicana Daily Sun missed a golden journalistic opportunity on Thursday by merely reprinting the AP article with respect to the Cameron Todd Willingham murder case. The Daily Sun is in possession of its compete reportage of the early ’90’s trial and is in a much better position to examine the actual trial evidence elicited.

    The Willingham trial has become a sort of cause celebre by anti-death penalty proponents because it seems to be an example of outmoded scientific techniques which led to a miscarriage of justice. In fact, the trial testimony you reported in 1991 contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.

    Always omitted from any examination of the actual trial are the following facts:

    1. The event which caused the three childrens’ deaths was the third attempt by Todd Willingham to kill his children established by the evidence. He had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages;

    This is not a fact. There was no testimony or evidence that he was tying to do that. Jackson is literally making this up. He admitted that he struck his wife. It’s inexcusable. But all the evidence shows that he loved his kids. His wife even testified to this fact.

    2. The “well-established burns” suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself;

    So the fact that he had superficial burns means he set the fire? Yes, they were “so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted” if you’ve already decided that he had tried to kill his kids! Otherwise, you would just think he hadn’t been burned badly. And while it may “suggest” something to Jackson, that is not a fact.

    3. Blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the homicide revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke, contrary to his statement which detailed “rescue attempts;”

    Blood-gas analysis is horseshit. If Jackson knew anything about fire investigating, he would realize this. Or maybe he does, and pretends he doesn’t. Furthermore, a lack of smoke at this point in the fire is completely consistent with Beyler’s report.

    Willingham originally claimed that he tried hard to save his daughters; that he went into the room repeatedly. There have been many inconsistencies with this story. Later, when he was on death row, he admitted that he had made some of that up so people would not wonder why he didn’t do more.

    When he made this little white lie up, he was not a suspect. He couldn’t have imagined that he would become a suspect. And he probably felt guilty for not being able to save his kids- experts have said that people often feel that way-that they can’t understand why they can’t make themselves go into the heat.

    4. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination. Such opportunity was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner;

    Two points here: Polygraphs are notoriously inaccurate- no one in their right mind would take the prosecution up on this. They are not allowed at trial as evidence for this reason. Jackson surely knows this, and yet he is now offering Williingham’s standard refusal to take one as evidence of guilt. Note that he doesn’t have a polygraph that indicates Willingham is guilty. He believes that the refusal to take one is evidence in itself.

    The second point is that Jackson, incredibly, is using Willingham’s impolite demeanor, when declining the polygraph, as evidence of guilt! In other words, Jackson had his feelings hurt!

    If I had just lost my children in a house fire, which I had nothing to do with, and then was asked to take a polygraph test to prove my innocence, I believe I would have told the DA to go fuck off. It would not be evidence of guilt.

    5. Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. His violent nature was further established by evidence of his vicious attacks on animals which is common to violent sociopaths;

    None of these things are particularly relevant. Lots of people are violent. It does not mean they are likely to burn their children alive. And if he was truly violent, you would expect him to use physical violence against his children, instead of trying to kill them with a fire.

    6. Witness statements established that Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, “You’re not the one who was supposed to die.” (The origin of the fire occured in the infant twins bedroom) and;

    People remember they hear all sorts of things when they’ve been told someone killed their kids. And as Grann points out in his rebuttal, Willingham could just as well have been saying that he, Willingham, was supposed to die; that he wished he could have traded places with her. Who knows? It was completely ambiguous. It is exactly the kind of evidence that should be disallowed, because it’s prejudicial hearsay which is completely open to all sorts of interpretation.

    7. Any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.

    The state’s own investigator said that this was irrelevant. And Grann says that Jackson himself said, when he was first researching the story, that this was not a huge factor. Why is he bringing it up now?

    Co-counsel Alan Bristol and I offered Willingham the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty in return for a sentence of life imprisonment. Such offer was rejected in an obscene and potentially violent confrontation with his defense counsel.

    So Jackson offers Willingham life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Willingham’s incompetent attorney advises him to take the deal, because he has no idea how to defend a death penalty case. Willingham tells his attorney to go to hell. And Jackson considers this evidence of his guilt? It’s incredible to see a judge write words like this in a newspaper column. That statement alone should have him removed.

    The Willingham case was charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status. I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. While anti-death penalty advocates can muster some remarkably good arguments, Todd Willingham should not be anyone’s poster child.

    At this point, I don’t really give a damn about what Jackson is convinced about. As he says, his critics have mustered some remarkably good arguments, and Jackson has failed to refute any of them.

    This man played an instrumental role in executing an innocent person, a person who had already suffered the tragedy of losing his children in a fire. He is trying to duck responsibility for that homicide (this is not hyperbole; homicide was listed on Willingham’s post-execution death certificate) by repeating the same lies over and over. He clearly has no interest in the factual guilt or innocence of Willingham; he just wants to save his own skin.

    I hope I never end up in his court room.

  3. j says:

    It sounds pretty convincing to me that this guy burned his children alive. I don’t like the death penalty, but he deserved it.

  4. Agitator says:

    The only thing in this case that points to innocence is the screaming of those that say “he was innocent” based on no facts but instead pure opinion. There are however a miriad of FACTS which prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the right man was convicted and punished by death. A god damned earthworm has a higher iq than those screaming he is innocent.

  5. OG says:

    Wrong asshole, an earthworm has an higher IQ than those saying he’s guilty. Go lick a taint you pussy.

  6. Charlie P says:

    Is agitator as stupid as he sounds? For a murder to have happened, someone would have had to have started that house fire through arson. At least seven of the most respected and knowledgeable fire investigators in the country have unanimously stated there is absolutely nothing in photos and films of the fire scene, or any evidence presented at the trial, that suggested the fire was the result of arson. Not one leading fire expert has stated they believe there was evidence of arson. I’ve never come across an earthworm who has a lower IQ than you.

  7. Heather says:

    That Jackson is still trumpeting utterly ridiculous reasons for why Willingham deserved to die we can only hope that he will be charged with murder and have Martin defend him. Now that would be the ONLY death penalty case I might actually not feel ambivalent over…

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