Up in Smoke
Houston Chronicle Editorial Board
Sept 2, 2009
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for starting a house fire in Corsicana 13 years earlier that killed his three young daughters. From the time of his arrest until a lethal injection ended his life on a prison gurney in Huntsville, Willingham maintained his innocence, refusing to enter a guilty plea at trial in exchange for a life sentence.
At the time of his state-inflicted death, it appeared Willingham’s fate was to be remembered as a monster who burned his children alive for no conceivable motive. With the release of a report by renowned arson expert Craig Beyler, commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, history may hold him in a very different light: the first person executed since capital punishment resumed in the United States in 1974 who was posthumously proven innocent.
Beyler’s report doesn’t flatly say that, but it demolishes the findings by arson investigators that the fire was deliberately set. According to Beyler, they had “poor understanding of fire science” and misread burn patterns.
Willingham’s case is explored at length by writer David Grann in the current New Yorker magazine in a piece entitled “Trial by Fire.” It has also been a focus of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal group that specializes in investigating wrongful convictions.
Innocence Project co-director and attorney Barry Scheck says the Willingham story “is a powerful case for those who have the stomach to look at it that an innocent man in Texas went to his death. This was not arson, much less an arson-murder case.”
A jury convicted the then-24-year-old unemployed auto mechanic largely on the basis of testimony by arson investigator Manuel Vasquez and Douglas Fogg that the fire bore unmistakable signs it had been deliberately set using accelerants. Willingham claimed he was at home asleep when the fire started and was awakened by the screams of his daughter Amber.
By Willingham’s account, he unsuccessfully tried to rescue the children but was driven from the building by heat and flames. He suggested that a space heater in the children’s bedroom might have sparked the blaze. After a two-day trial, the jury quickly found him guilty, and he was sentenced to death.
Shortly before his execution, a well-known arson investigator, Gerald Hurst, examined the evidence that led to Willingham’s conviction and came to the conclusion that the original finding of arson was wrong. All of the indications cited as proof of a deliberate fire could have been caused by a so-called flashover, when intense heat triggers flame bursts that can mimic arson.
Hurst’s report was submitted as part of last-minute appeals to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry to stay Willingham’s execution. The appeals were denied.
As Scheck told the New Yorker, “the only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”
Whether or not it officially acknowledges that Willingham was wrongfully executed, the members of the Forensic Science Commission deserve thanks for their willingness to launch a thorough and impartial investigation. Since there are no do-overs where capital punishment is involved, the commission’s next step should be formulating recommendations to upgrade and standardize forensic investigations and testing to prevent future miscarriages of justice.