Cameron Todd Willingham
Executed in 2004
This may be one of the saddest stories ever told. It is reminiscent of the recent Academy Award winning movie staring Casey Afflect, Manchester By The Sea, in 2017. It is a story of great tragedy followup up by travesty and topped off by outrage. It is a story that goes far to show us all that in the history of the death penalty, we can all be found guilty, at any time, and be completely innocent.
The sad story of Cameron Todd Willingham begins in 1991, when a fire occurred at his home in Texas. It was a random and traumatic event, killing his three young daughters. The loss of so much young and beautiful life would surely kill a man, or at least leave him a hollow shell of his former self. It is a fate that no parent should face. The death of a child is a darkness that consumes one from the inside out, overwhelming you with powerlessness and futility to the point of personal insignificance. Surely Willingham had to walk through a personal hell after seeing his daughter all burn up in the fire. Just reading about it give me the chills.
This is the eighth installment in the Innocents Executed series from HistoryDojo. Please find the seventh installment here. Please start the series at the beginning here.
Willingham escaped the fire with minor injuries and his then-wife was not home at the time. This ironic outcome got the suspicions of prosecutors and police, as they were keen to find someone to blame for these three young deaths. Investigators determined, and their laboratory tests verified, that an accelerant was used near the front porch. This was enough for suggest that Willingham had started the fire himself, while his wife was away, in order to murder his three young girls.
The prosecutors alleged that the fluid was deliberately poured near the front porch, children’s bedroom, and in the hallway to start the fire and impede rescue attempts. Prosecutors believed that Willingham started the fire in an attempt to cover up his abuse of his girls. This was apparently alleged by the prosecution, as there was no evidence to show that the girls had been abused, and even Willingham’s wife’s testified at trial that he had never abused the children and, in fact, “spoiled them rotten.” The Prosecution understood that false allegations at trial are routinely accepted as truth by jurists, who are manipulated by the authority of government lawyers and dismissive of those accused of crimes.
The science of fire investigation was at the heart of this case. The idea that investigators could determine beyond a reasonable doubt how a fire started and where accelerant was applied was challenged in court.
It revealed that the testimony of fire experts is often unsupported and subjective, easily biased against the defendants in trail. Gerald Hurst, a PhD in chemistry, reputed claims that the extreme heat of the fire meant that an accelerant was used.
“There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire,” said Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. “It was just a fire.”
Willingham was charged after fire investigators concluded an accelerant had been used to set three separate fires inside the wood-frame, one-story home. Their findings were based on what they described as more than 20 indicators of arson.
Among them: “crazed glass,” the intricate, weblike cracks through glass. For years arson investigators believed it was a clear indication that an accelerant had been used to fuel a fire that became exceedingly hot. Now, analysts have established that it is created when hot glass is sprayed with water, as when the fire is put out. It was just such evidence that helped convict Willingham.
Just as Hurst and other consultants dismissed the “crazed glass,” they also said other so-called indicators–floor burn patterns and the charring of wood under the aluminum threshold–were just as unreliable.
The experts said evidence indicated the fire had advanced to flashover, a phenomenon that occurs when a fire gets so hot that gas builds up and causes an explosion. After flashover, “it becomes impossible to visually identify accelerant patterns,” Hurst reported.
He also said the original finding that charring of wood was due to an accelerant under the threshold “is clearly impossible. Liquid accelerants can no more burn under an aluminum threshold than grease can burn in a skillet, even with a loose-fitting lid.”
Prosecutors, though, point to other evidence against Willingham presented at his trial: a jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to him and stands by his testimony, and witnesses who said Willingham did not try hard enough to save his children.
Willingham was deemed an “extremely severe sociopath” by a psychiatrist using only Willingham’s Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin posters as indications of his fascination with violence and death.
Witness testimony during the fire was contradictory and inconclusive.
During his trial in August 1992, Willingham was offered a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, which he turned down insisting he was innocent.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles received Hurst’s argument but still denied Willingham clemency.
Willingham was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004.
In June 2009 the State of Texas ordered an unprecedented re-examination of the case and may issue a ruling on it at a later date.
Frontline, a PBS show, did an outstanding report on the case. Please watch: