Myths and Facts about the Willingham Case

Cameron Todd Willingham’s case raises strong opinions on many different levels, but some who defend his conviction and execution are distorting aspects of the case, and some of those distortions are being repeated or reported as fact.

Myth: Reports from arson experts who reviewed the case have been exaggerated; the experts don’t really say the fire was not arson.

Facts:  

• Nine nationally renowned, independent experts have reviewed the case in the last five years and found that the forensic analysis was wrong.
• Craig Beyler, hired by the Forensic Science Commission, said of one of the analysts: “None of these determinations have any basis in modern fire science,” and of the second analyst’s findings: “There is no basis for this notion in modern fire science.” He found that the investigators did not comport with the “standard of care” for fire investigation at the time, and that “a finding of arson could not be sustained.”  
• In a report filed with the Forensic Science Commission in 2006, five leading experts said “each and every one of the indicators relied on [to determine that the fire was arson] have since been scientifically proven to be invalid.”
• Gerald Hurst, whose report was sent to the governor before Willingham’s execution, has said, “There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire…It was just a fire.”  

 


Myth: While it’s now clear that the forensic analysis was wrong, we couldn’t have known that with the science at the time.

Facts:

• The National Fire Protection Association had issued guidelines several months before Willingham’s trial that directly contradicted the analysis the experts used (and testified about at the trial).
• As far back as 1969, scientific experts published findings that some of the very indicators of arson used in the Willingham case were unreliable and could be misinterpreted.
• Even if the analysts didn’t know it was wrong at the time, they surely should have known it in the years following – and should have brought it to the attention of courts and prosecutors long before the 11th-hour efforts that preceded Willingham’s execution


Myth: Even without evidence that the fire was arson, Willingham would have been convicted because there was substantial other evidence.

Facts:

• The forensic analysis is what determined that a crime had been committed in the first place. It was the centerpiece of the case, as it is in other arson cases.
• Other than a jailhouse informant who has been solidly discredited (and who recently asked when the statute of limitations for perjury runs out), the forensic analysis was the only evidence that a crime occurred. Other witnesses at Willingham’s trial provided contradictory statements about Willingham’s behavior after the fire, but those statements were not evidence that a crime had taken place.

Myth: The faulty forensic analysis and lack of other evidence doesn’t matter because Willingham was a bad man and a sociopath, so he was guilty.

Facts:

• Two prosecution experts who testified that Willingham was a sociopath had never met him; one was expelled from his professional association three years later for unethical behavior.   
• Willingham’s former probation officer and a judge both directly refute any notion that he was a sociopath.
• Willingham’s ex-wife said that he hit her but never tried to hurt the children. “He’s never hurt those kids,” she said.  
• Willingham was not charged with spousal abuse; he was charged with murder.

Myth: Willingham’s statements about the fire were inconsistent.

Facts:

• Willingham’s statements to law enforcement officials were remarkably consistent, even under intense interrogation, and remained consistent over the course of a decade. He always said he heard his daughter crying, woke up, tried to get his children but couldn’t, and exited the house.  
• On one fact, Willingham changed his story. He admitted that he exaggerated having gone inside the babies’ room (he said he wanted to sound brave and feared that people would think he was a coward for not going into the burning room).
• What are now being described as Willingham’s “inconsistencies” don’t come from Willingham at all – they are recollections from hearsay witnesses, virtually none of whom testified at trial or were cross-examined.  
• Many of those hearsay witnesses’ statements evolved and hardened once they knew Willingham was a suspect in the case.

Myth: Willingham didn’t try to save his children (his wounds were superficial, he stood outside while the house burned, he moved his car, etc).

Facts:

• Authorities had to restrain Willingham from going back into the house.
• Scientific experts have conducted experiments with identical fires and Willingham’s burns are normal for this type of fire.
• When Willingham exited his bedroom, the hallway was not yet on fire; the fire was contained in the children’s bedroom. In recreations with rooms involved in intense fires, experts can safely stand by a door seconds before flashover, and Willingham could have stood close to the children’s room without being harmed.
• Willingham explained that he moved his car because he was afraid fuel in the car would cause the fire to get much worse.

Myth: There is credible and reliable new information that Willingham confessed to his ex-wife.

Facts:

 

• About Willingham’s ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, even John Jackson (who prosecuted Willingham and steadfastly believes he was guilty) says: “She’s given very different stories about what happened on this particular day right up to the date of his execution…It’s hard for me to make heads or tails of anything she said or didn’t say.”  
• In 2004, Stacy Kuykendall told the Chicago Tribune that he never confessed, and she said the same to The New Yorker in 2009.  
• Details in Stacy Kuykendall recent statements contradict what she said in multiple statements to law enforcement authorities, letters to Willingham and attorneys, and under oath at his trial. (For example, she now claims the couple fought the night before the fire, but she clearly said the opposite in various official statements over the years.)
• Stacy Kuykendall visited Willingham shortly before the execution, which is when he supposedly confessed. In fact, on the same day that her brother claimed she had told him Willingham confessed in that meeting, a local media outlet ran an interview with Stacy Kuykendall where she said Willingham maintained his innocence during the meeting (even though she thought he was guilty). Also, Stacy Kuykendall now claims that he confessed in the same conversation that he asked her to help with his clemency bid.


Myth:
The Texas Forensic Science Commission is going to determine whether Willingham was innocent.

Facts:  

• The commission was never asked to determine whether Willingham was innocent, and was never going to reach a conclusion on his innocence.
• The commission is determining whether the forensic analysis in the Willingham case was valid and, by extension, is also considering whether similar arson cases may have been tainted by faulty forensic evidence. It is also tasked with determining what corrective action, if any, is needed to ensure that forensic analysis in cases like this is reliable.