Critical questions remain in arson case
Texas Forensic Science Commission will review disputed findings in case of executed father Cameron Todd Willingham.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
CORSICANA — More than five years after his final act from the Texas death chamber gurney was a profanity-filled tirade, the murder case of executed inmate Cameron Todd Willingham refuses to die.
Willingham was executed in February 2004 — proclaiming his innocence and hoping aloud that his wife would “rot in hell” — for the deaths of his three young daughters in a fire at their Corsicana home on Dec. 23, 1991.
An arson finding by investigators was key to his conviction in the circumstantial case.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that investigates possible wrongful convictions, questioned Willingham’s guilt. Now the Texas Forensic Science Commission will review a report Friday from an expert it hired who concluded that the original arson determination was faulty.
The prosecutor in the case still thinks Willingham is guilty but acknowledges it would have been hard to win a death sentence without the arson finding.
Yet Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, sees it differently: “There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed.”
In 2007, Scheck’s group gave its review of the case to the state commission, which then hired Baltimore-based arson expert Craig Beyler to study it. Beyler concluded that the arson finding was scientifically unsupported and that investigators at the scene had “poor understandings of fire science.”
John Jackson, the prosecutor in Navarro County, about 50 miles south of Dallas, says the original fire investigation was “undeniably flawed,” based on subsequent reviews, but remains confident Willingham was guilty of killing Amber, 2, and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron.
“What people missed is that even though the arson report may be flawed, it certainly doesn’t mean it arrived at a faulty conclusion,” Jackson said.
“I’m an easy target,” he added, shaking his head over media reports on the case “about how we’re all a bunch of bozos.”
The nine-member commission, created by the Texas Legislature in 2005, also will hear from others including the State Fire Marshal’s Office. The panel will release its own report, probably next year. What will happen after that is uncertain. This is the commission’s first review case; the panel is not empowered to rule on Willingham’s guilt or innocence.
The commission’s mandate is strictly to determine forensic negligence, panel coordinator Leigh Tomlin said.
Willingham, in an Associated Press interview about two weeks before his execution, said Amber’s cries woke him about 10:30 a.m. His wife, Stacy, had left earlier to run errands.
He said he told Amber to get out of the house and approached the twins’ room but couldn’t get past the flames and smoke. The house had no phone, so he said he ran to a neighbor’s home and “screamed to call the fire department.”
He did not go back inside.
“The only way for me to get back into the house was to jump back into the flames,” he said. “I would not do that.”
Amber’s body was found in Willingham’s room. The twins were in their room.
Willingham listed other possible causes of the fire, including an electrical malfunction, an intruder who wanted them dead or an oil lantern on a collapsing shelf.
A state fire marshal — who has since died — and a local fire investigator ruled it was arson, that a liquid accelerant was ignited and the blaze was set in a way that prevented anyone from reaching the children. Prosecutors arrested Willingham two weeks later.
“It’s all a farce,” Willingham told the AP from death row.
Years later, Innocence Project investigators agreed with him, as does Beyler, based on notes and photos from the scene.
Douglas Fogg stands by his conclusions as the former assistant fire chief who helped investigate the deadly blaze.
“The bleeding hearts that are against the death penalty are trying to stir everything up again,” he told The Dallas Morning News last month. “They finally got someone who would say what they wanted to hear.”
Other prosecution evidence was largely circumstantial: A county jail inmate said Willingham discussed his involvement in the fire, and neighbors reported Willingham worried more about his car than the children as the house burned.
Jackson, the Navarro County prosecutor, said the multiple deaths — not the arson — made it a capital murder case. But he acknowledged that without an arson determination, the capital conviction would have been difficult.
“I’m not sure the evidence would have sustained a conviction from a legal standpoint if we hadn’t been able to prove a fire of incendiary arson,” he said.
At trial, Willingham’s wife, Stacy, testified for him during the punishment phase, denying he ever hurt her. Acquaintances, however, said she told them he’d beaten her several times, even while she was pregnant.
On appeal, courts rejected Willingham’s arguments that it was improper to allow hearsay bolstering prosecutors’ contentions that the children impeded Willingham’s lifestyle. He denied that.
“They were great kids,” he said from prison. “They were fantastic kids.”
Willingham acknowledged a rocky relationship with his wife, whom he married about two months before the fire, after they’d lived together for almost three years.
“I cheated on her,” he told the AP. “I was so full of myself and so dumb.”
His venom from the death chamber was aimed at her as she watched his execution.
In the years following his conviction, she became convinced of his guilt and refused his request to testify for him at a clemency hearing. She did agree to his long-standing invitation to see him in prison about 2½ weeks before he was scheduled to die.
“It was hard for me to sit in front of him,” she said a few days later, describing their meeting to the Corsicana Daily Sun in 2004 in her most recent public comments. “He basically took my life away from me. He took my kids away from me.”
Jackson said jurors who heard the prosecution’s case got a more complete picture of Willingham and that the arson questions now raised are “wild speculation.”
“I’m pretty ambivalent when it comes to the death penalty,” Jackson said. “I guess if it raises the question of the propriety of capital punishment, I think that’s a good argument for people to have.
“I’m not losing a whole lot of sleep.”