Cameron Todd Willingham
Cameron Todd Willingham (January 9, 1968 – February 17, 2004) was convicted of murder and executed for the deaths of his three young children by arson at the family home in Corsicana, Texas.
Willingham’s case gained renewed attention in 2009 when an investigative report by David Grann in The New Yorker, drawing upon arson investigation experts and advances in fire science since the 1992 investigation, suggested that the evidence for arson was unconvincing, and that had this information been available at the time of trial, Willingham would have been acquitted.
According to an August 2009 investigative report by an expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the original claims of arson were doubtful. The Corsicana Fire Department disputes the findings, stating that the report overlooked several key points in the record. The case has been further complicated by allegations that Texas Governor Rick Perry impeded the investigation by replacing three of the nine commission members in an attempt to change the commission’s findings; Perry denies the allegations.
The fire occurred at the Willingham home in Corsicana, Texas on December 23, 1991. Killed in the fire were Willingham’s three daughters: two-year-old Amber Louise Kuykendall and one-year-old twins Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham. Willingham himself escaped the home with only minor burns. Stacy Kuykendall, Willingham’s then-wife and the mother of his three daughters, was not home at the time of the fire, as she was out shopping. Prosecutors charged that Willingham set the fire and killed the children in an attempt to cover up abuse of the girls. This was in spite of the fact that there was never any evidence of child abuse and Willingham’s wife, Stacy, had told prosecutors that he had never abused the children. “Our kids were spoiled rotten,” she said and insisted he would never harm their children.
Investigation and trial
The primary evidence leading to Willingham’s arrest and conviction was the result of police inspections after the fire, which determined that the fire had been started using some form of liquid accelerant. This evidence included a finding of char patterns in the floor in the shape of “puddles”, a finding of multiple starting points of the fire, and a finding that the fire had burned “fast and hot”, all considered to indicate a fire that had been ignited with the help of a liquid accelerant. The investigators also found charring under the aluminum front door jamb that they believed was further indication of a liquid accelerant, and tested positive for such an accelerant in the area of the front door. Although no clear motive was found, and Willingham’s wife denied that they had fought prior to the night of the fire, later testimony from a fellow inmate claimed that Willingham had confessed to starting the fire.
Charcoal starter fluid and an outdoor grill were kept on the front porch of Willingham’s house as evidenced by a melted container found there. Some of this fluid may have entered the front doorway of the house carried along by fire hose water. While laboratory tests verified that an accelerant was used only near the front porch, it was alleged that this fluid was deliberately poured near the front porch, a children’s bedroom and a hallway to start the fire and that Willingham included the entranceway by the front porch so as to impede rescue attempts. Willingham volunteered the information that squirrels had been getting into his roof in the weeks prior to the fire, and suggested to neighbors immediately afterwards that the fire was of electrical origin. He maintained this explanation, with qualifications as to his lack of expertise, in his police statement. The prosecution used this and other arson theories, some of which have since been brought into question.
Long after the original conviction, in 2004 Gerald Hurst, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, examined the arson evidence compiled by Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal. Hurst said that Vasquez was incorrect when he said that the extreme heat of the fire (as evidenced by a melted aluminum threshold) indicated that an accelerant was used, and said that experiments prove that wood and liquid accelerant fires can burn with equal heat. Hurst’s own experiments showed that burning with an accelerant does not leave the kind of brown stains that Vasquez claimed were created that way. Hurst also said that the crazed glass that Vasquez said was caused by a liquid accelerant had been found as a result of brush fires elsewhere. Experiments showed that crazed glass was caused not by rapid heating but by cooling, and that glass cooled by water from a fire hose was more likely to have a crazed or cracked pattern. A $20,000 experimental house fire set without an accelerant created the same pour patterns and V shaped pattern that Vasquez attributed to the use of a liquid accelerant. Vasquez thought that Willingham lied when he said he escaped without burning his feet, because he thought that an accelerant was used that would spread fire along the floor. However, since no accelerant was needed to create the results found, Willingham could well have been telling the truth when he said that he ran out without burning his feet, presuming he left before the fire achieved flashover.
According to Hurst, when a fire reaches the flashover threshold, it is impossible to visually identify accelerant patterns. While the prosecutor thought that the “bizarre” path of the flame indicated that an accelerant was used, Hurst said that the path of the fire followed a post-flashover pattern of going in the direction of ventilation. Although Willingham was accused of using an accelerant in three different places, the front porch was the only place where an accelerant was verified by laboratory tests, and a photograph taken of the house before the fire showed that a charcoal grill was there. The family confirmed that lighter fluid was by the grill used for family barbecues. Water sprayed by firefighters likely spread the lighter fluid from the melted container. All twenty of the indications listed by Vasquez of an accelerant being used were rebutted by Hurst.
A report prepared by Craig Beyler for the Texas Forensic Science Commission said that investigators ignored the scientific method for analyzing fires described in NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations and relied on “folklore” and “myths”. Beyler also said that Vasquez was incorrect when he said that witnesses saw three different fires, and that they only reported smoke from the fire that began in the bedroom. Beyler wrote in his report, “in the end, the only (basis) for the determination of arson … is the burn patterns on the floor of the children’s bedroom, the hallway and the porch interpreted as accelerant spill. None of these determinations have any basis in modern fire science.” However, the City of Corsicana was extremely critical of Beyler’s report, and produced a 21-page response pointing out that his report lacked objectivity, stating “Given some of Dr. Beyler’s distortions of the trial record, as described below, it may be that he has assumed the role of an advocate.”
The Board of Pardons and Paroles received Hurst’s description, but unanimously denied Willingham’s petition for clemency. Governor Perry refused to grant a stay of execution, saying through a spokesperson that “The Governor made his decision based on the facts of the case.” Governor Perry said that the “supposed experts” (using finger quotes) were wrong and not to listen to anti-death penalty “propaganda”. Perry aide Mary Anne Wiley said the commission’s $30,000 hiring of fire scientist Craig Beyler was a waste of taxpayer money. Jackson, one of the prosecutors, admitted that an “undeniably flawed forensic report” was used to convict Willingham, but claimed that other reasons established guilt.
In addition to the arson evidence, a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb claimed Willingham confessed that he set the fire to hide an injury or death of one of the girls, caused by his wife, although none of the girls were found at the time of death to have physical injuries still distinguishable after the effects of the fire. Webb later told a reporter for The New Yorker, “it’s very possible I misunderstood what he said. Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy. My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that.”. At Willingham’s trial, Webb offered an explanation for the individual, distinguishable burns that were found on Amber’s forehead and arm, stating that Willingham confessed to burning her twice with a piece of “wadded up” paper in an effort to make it appear as though the children were “playing with fire”. Webb was later diagnosed bipolar and even the prosecutor described Webb as “an unreliable kind of guy”, yet after Webb’s testimony Jackson successfully got him released from prison early. Webb later sent Jackson a Motion to Recant Testimony, that declared, “Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges.” Willingham’s attorneys were not notified and Webb later recanted his recantation. Webb later said, “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”
During the penalty phase of the trial a prosecutor said that Willingham’s tattoo of a skull and serpent fit the profile of a sociopath. Two medical experts confirmed the theory. A psychologist was asked to interpret Willingham’s Iron Maiden poster, and said that a picture of a fist punching through a skull signified violence and death. He added that Willingham’s Led Zeppelin poster of a fallen angel was “many times” an indicator of “cultive-type” activities. Psychiatrist James Grigson said that a man of Willingham’s criminal history was an “extremely severe sociopath” and was incurable. Grigson was an expert witness for the prosecution in murder trials across the state of Texas. Prior to his death, he upheld his record by stating that the prosecutors would not have them on trial if they were not a danger to society. “I did my part to put them away.”
On returning to the house after the fire in the company of fireman Ron Franks, Willingham said that he had been over earlier and poured British Sterling cologne in the hallway from the bathroom to the bedroom in which the twins had died, because they had loved its smell when they were alive.
Further to the testimony of Webb and the arson evidence, the prosecution sought to establish that Willingham’s conduct at the time of the fire and in the days afterwards was suspicious. As the fire took hold, Willingham was driven out through the front door of his house, where he crouched down near the entrance. On seeing neighbor Diane Barbe, Willingham began to shout at her to call 911, shouting “My babies are in there!” At trial, Willingham’s conduct at the scene was described as oscillating between collected and hysterical – at times screaming for assistance, and at other times calmly pushing his car back from the flames that were engulfing his house.
Eyewitnesses also described his appearance as having “singed hair on his chest, eyelids, and head and had a two inch burn injury on his right shoulder, but the prosecution highlighted the absence of any evidence of smoke inhalation. His wrists and hands were blackened with smoke. He was eventually transported to the hospital for treatment, still resisting and still in handcuffs.”
According to their sworn statements, both Brandice Barbe and Diane Barbe urged Willingham to return into the house to rescue his children, as according to Brandice Barbe, “all I could see was smoke”. According to Brandice, he refused, and went to move his car away from the fire before returning to sit on a nearby lawn “not once attempting to go inside to rescue his children”. Once the fire had reached flashover and the fire department arrived, Willingham became far more agitated, to the point of being restrained by emergency services.
In the following days, Willingham would return to the house with some family and friends, this gathering being described by neighbors as having an odd levity, which was seen to turn sombre on the arrival of authorities. On returning to the scene of the fire with fireman Ron Franks, in an effort to recover personal property (which was described as a very usual request at trial), Willingham was visibly dismayed to be unable to find a dart set. At a local bar, where a fundraiser was held for the Willingham family, he placed an order for a replacement set, stating that “money was not a problem now”.
The prosecution claimed that Willingham may have been motivated by a desire to rid himself of his unwanted children. The prosecutor claimed that the fire which killed the children was the third attempt by Willingham to do so after attempting to abort each of two pregnancies by kicking his wife in order to cause miscarriages. However, in a follow up article by David Grann, it was noted that” …there is evidence that Willingham hit his wife, even when she was pregnant, but there were no police reports or medical evidence indicating that Willingham had tried to abort or kill his children” and that “Willingham’s wife insisted during the trial and under interrogation that Willingham had not physically abused the children.”. The testimony at trial of Johnny Webb, a jailhouse informant, suggested that Willingham had set the fire in order to cover up an injury or death of one of the children due to his wife’s actions.
The prosecutor also claimed that Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. Jackson also claimed Willingham had abused animals and was a sociopath. However, those not associated with the case paint a different picture of Willingham. His former probation officer, Polly Goodin, said he had never demonstrated bizarre or sociopathic behavior and that “He was probably one of my favorite kids.” Even a former judge named Bebe Bridges—who had often stood, as she put it, on the “opposite side” of Willingham in the legal system, and who had sent him to jail for stealing—said that she could not imagine him killing his children. “He was polite, and he seemed to care,” she said.
Willingham was charged with murder on January 8, 1992. During his trial in August 1992, he was offered a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, which he turned down insisting he was innocent. At trial, the fire investigator Vasquez testified that there were three points of origin for the fire, which indicated that the fire was “intentionally set by human hands”. A sample of burned material near the doorway of the house tested positive for mineral spirits, indicating the presence of lighter fluid. Willingham had escaped the fire with bare feet and no burn marks. This was taken as evidence that accelerant was poured by Willingham as he left the house. Several witnesses testified for the prosecution.
In 2009, John Jackson, the prosecutor at the trial stated that burns suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself. However, The New Yorker writer David Grann says that fire investigators who reviewed the case told him that “Willingham’s first-degree and second-degree burns were consistent with being in a fire before the moment of ‘flashover’—that is, when everything in a room suddenly ignites.”
Commenting on the condition of the house, Jackson added “any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requiring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.” There were two refrigerators in the Willingham house. Jimmie Hensley, a police detective, and Douglas Fogg, the assistant fire chief, who both investigated the fire, told The New Yorker author Grann that they had never believed that the fridge was part of the arson plot. “It didn’t have [anything] to do with the fire,” Fogg said.
Jackson also contradicted Willingham’s account by claiming blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the fire revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke. Willingham’s statement and eyewitness accounts had detailed rescue attempts.
Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination, which “was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner,” according to Jackson. Against the advice of his own counsel, Willingham also declined a life sentence in exchange for his guilty plea. He insisted he would not admit to something he had not done, even if it meant sparing his life.
Appeals, incarceration, and execution
Willingham had the Texas Department of Criminal Justice number 999041. While on death row, Willingham was initially incarcerated in the Ellis Unit, and later in the Polunsky Unit. Willingham maintained his innocence up until his death and spent years trying to appeal his conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Willingham a writ of habeas corpus a month before his execution. Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and fire investigator, reviewed the case and concluded there was “no evidence of arson”, the same conclusion reached by other fire investigators. Hurst’s report was sent to governor Rick Perry’s office as well as Board of Pardons and Paroles along with Willingham’s appeal for clemency. Neither responded to Willingham’s appeals. In response to allegations that he allowed the execution of an innocent man, Perry was quoted as stating “he was a wife beater.” “The whole case was based on the purest form of junk science,” Hurst later said. “There was no item of evidence that indicated arson.” Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the Governor had weighed the “totality of the issues that led to (Willingham’s) conviction.” She said he was aware of a “claim of a reinterpretation of (the) arson testimony.”
Willingham was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004, at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. He was 36 years old. When asked if he had a final statement, Willingham said: “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.”
He then addressed his ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, who was watching about 8 feet (2.4 m) away through a window. Willingham said, “I hope you rot in hell, bitch; I hope you fucking rot in hell bitch; You bitch; I hope you fucking rot, cunt. That is it.” and then attempted to maneuver his hand, strapped at the wrist to the execution gurney, into an obscene gesture. Kuykendall showed no reaction to the outburst. While she initially believed in her husband’s innocence, following the trial she told him she no longer believed him and publicized her change of heart. Willingham was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m., seven minutes after the lethal dose of chemicals began.
Since Willingham’s execution, persistent questions have been raised as to the accuracy of the forensic evidence used in the conviction; specifically, whether it can be proven that an accelerant (such as the lighter fluid mentioned above) was used to start the fatal fire. Fire investigator Gerald L. Hurst reviewed the case documents, including the trial transcriptions and an hour-long videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene. Hurst said in December 2004 that “There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire.”
In June 2009 the State of Texas ordered an unprecedented re-examination of the case. In August 2009, eighteen years after the fire and five years after Willingham’s execution, a report conducted by Dr. Craig Beyler, hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the case, found that “a finding of arson could not be sustained”. Beyler said that key testimony from a fire marshal at Willingham’s trial was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics”.
The prosecutor, John Jackson, and the City of Corsicana have both released formal responses to the Beyler Report on the investigation of the fire that killed Willingham’s three children at the behest of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Both were sharply critical of Beyler. In a 2009 article discussing the reasons why Willingham was found guilty, Jackson recalled 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.” Jackson stated that Willingham’s comment was an indicator of guilt. In a rebuttal David Grann wrote, “If the arson investigators had concluded there was no scientific evidence that a crime had occurred—as the top fire investigators in the country have now determined—Willingham’s words at the funeral would surely be viewed as a sign that he was tormented by the fact that he had survived without saving his children.”
An August 2009 Chicago Tribune investigative article concluded: “Over the past five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation’s top fire scientists—first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project, and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson. The only other evidence of significance against Willingham was twice-recanted testimony by another inmate who testified that Willingham had confessed to him. Jailhouse snitches are viewed with skepticism in the justice system, so much so that some jurisdictions have restrictions against their use.”
The Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to discuss the report by Beyler at a meeting on October 2, 2009, but two days before the meeting Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced the chair of the commission and two other members. The new chair canceled the meeting—sparking accusations that Perry was interfering with the investigation and using it for his own political advantage.
In October 2009, the city of Corsicana released two affidavits that included statements from Ronnie Kuykendall, the former brother-in-law of Willingham, originally made in 2004. According to the affidavits, Willingham’s ex-wife had told Ronnie that Willingham had confessed to her that he had set the fire. Stacy herself told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on October 25, 2009 that during a final prison meeting just weeks before he was put to death Willingham admitted setting the fire, as a response to Stacy’s alleged threats of divorce the night before. Journalists familiar with the case noted that Stacy Kuykendall’s statement explicitly contradicted previous comments, legal testimony, and numerous published interviews before and after the execution. This was also noted by Willingham’s prosecutor, who said “It’s hard for me to make heads or tails of anything she said or didn’t say.” For example, Kuykendall had earlier in 2009 supported her 2004 contradiction of her brother’s affidavit (saying that there had been no confession), and had previously always maintained that things had been amicable between her and Willingham before the fire. In 2010, she declared, “Todd murdered Amber, Karmon and Kameron. He burnt them. He admitted he burnt them to me, and he was convicted for his crime. That is the closest to justice that my daughters will ever get.”
A four-person panel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission investigating evidence of arson presented in the case acknowledged on July 23, 2010, that state and local arson investigators used “flawed science” in determining the blaze had been deliberately set. It also found insufficient evidence to prove that state Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg were negligent or guilty of misconduct in their arson work.
In 2010, the Innocence Project filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas, seeking a judgment of “official oppression”.
In 2011, Incendiary: The Willingham Case, a documentary film dissecting the case and its controversial aftermath, won the Louis Black Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The film was one of ten American films screened in the 2011 AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival U.S. Feature Competition.