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Cameron Todd Willingham: Wrongfully Convicted and Executed in Texas

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Posted: September 13, 2010   12:00 AM

Documents from the Cameron Todd Willingham Posthumous Pardon filing can be found here.

 

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters 13 years earlier. He always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by leading experts before Willingham was executed. Since 2004, further evidence in the case has led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire for which he was executed.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission issued its report on the convictions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis on April 15, 2011 recommending more education and training for fire investigators and implementing procedures to review old cases (the commission issued an addendum to the report on October 28, 2011.

TAKE ACTION: Ask the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham!

Read more on the case below, along with news coverage and key documents.

Case Summary

Media Coverage

Final Texas Forensic Science Commission report on Willingham / Willis cases

Texas Forensic Science Commission -- History and Key Documents

Myths and Facts About the Willingham Case

• The New Yorker: "Trial By Fire"

Complete Trial Transcript


Case Summary

On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Corsicana, Texas, home Cameron Todd Willingham shared with his wife and three daughters, killing the three girls. Willingham, who was asleep when the fire started, survived. His wife was at the Salvation Army buying Christmas presents for the girls.

At Willingham’s 1992 trial, prosecutors claimed he intentionally set fire to his home in order to kill his own children. Willingham said he was asleep in the home when the fire started and always maintained his innocence. He was convicted based on the testimony of forensic experts who said they had determined that the fire was intentionally set and a jailhouse informant who said Willingham had confessed to him. On October 29, 1992, he was sentenced to death. (Download the full trial transcripts here.)

Thirteen years later, in the days leading up to Willingham's execution, his attorneys sent the governor and the Board of Pardon and Parole a report from Gerald Hurst, a nationally recognized arson expert, saying that Willingham's conviction was based on erroneous forensic analysis. Documents obtained by the Innocence Project show that state officials received that report but apparently did not act on it. Willingham was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville on February 17, 2004.

Months after Willingham was executed, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report that raised questions about the forensic analysis. The Innocence Project assembled five of the nation's leading independent arson experts to review the evidence in the case, and this prestigious group issued a 48-page report finding that none of the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was valid.

In 2006, the Innocence Project formally submitted the case to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, asking the empowered state entity to launch a full investigation. Along with the Willingham case, the Innocence Project submitted information about another arson case in Texas where identical evidence was used to send another man to death row. In that case, Ernest Willis was exonerated and freed from prison because the forensic evidence was not valid.

In 2008, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to investigate the case. The panel’s review was interrupted several times over the last two years, however, and continues today. In 2009, an arson expert hired by the commission issued a report finding that experts who testified at Willingham's trial should have known it was wrong at the time. Days before the expert was set to testify, however, Gov. Rick Perry replaced key members of the panel, delayed the investigation for months.

An investigative report in the September 7, 2009, issue of the New Yorker deconstructs every facet of the state’s case against Willingham. The 16,000-word article by David Grann shows that all of the evidence used against Willingham was invalid, including the forensic analysis, the informant’s testimony, other witness testimony and additional circumstantial evidence.

On October 14, Texas Judge Charlie Baird held a hearing in the Willingham case to determine whether to hold a court of inquiry. And on October 15, the Texas Forensic Science Commission discussed the case in depth at its regular meeting. On April 15, 2011, the TFSC issued its final report in the Willingham / Willis cases.

In July 2011, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion in response to questions from the commission about jurisdiction and authority. The opinion prohibits the commission from investigating “specific items of evidence that were tested or offered into evidence prior to” September 1, 2005. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck responded that the "the reasoning of the opinion is wrong and contrary to the clear intention of the legislature when it formed the Commission."

In September 2011, the TFSC met to consider an addendum to its final report on the Willingham and Willis cases. The meeting adjourned without action on the draft addendum, however. On October 28, 2011, the commission issued the report addendum.

Read more about the TFSC and download key documents relating to the panel here.

Resources in the case are below, along with background on the role of unvalidated forensics in wrongful convictions.


Key Reports and Documents:

2011: Final Texas Forensic Science Commission report on Willingham / Willis cases (Addendum)

2010: John Lentini presentation at Court of Inquiry hearing

2010: Court of Inquiry Petition by Eugenia Willingham and Patricia Willingham Cox

2009: Report of Craig Beyler to the Texas Forensic Science Commission

2009: New Yorker investigation: Trial by Fire

2008: Innocence Project Letter to TFSC

2006: Expert Panel Report on Willingham and Willis convictions

2006: Innocence Project Filing to Texas Forensic Science Commission

2004: Gerald Hurst Report on Willingham Arson Investigation

2004: Hurst report on Ernest Willis arson investigation

2004: Chicago Tribune Investigation: Man Executed on Disproved Forensics - 2004

Documents Obtained from Texas via Open Records Act (PDF)

Download the complete Trial Transcript

Visit our Texas Forensic Science Commission page for more key documents.

Innocence Project Press Releases:

07/21/10: Texas Forensic Science Commission Set to Discuss Willingham Case and Arson Convictions Statewide

10/22/09: 400 People from 120 Texas Towns - Including 15 Exonerated with DNA Testing - Urge State Panel to Continue Willingham Probe

8/31/09: New Report Shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, Executed in Texas in 2004, Was Innocent

5/2/06: Innocence Project Submits Two Arson Cases to Texas Commission and Requests System-Wide Review

 

Selected Press Coverage and Multimedia:


September 2011

Austin American-Statesman: Thanks to Willingham Inquiry, Old Cases Getting New Look (9/10/11)

Texas Tribune: Forensic Panel Calls for Review of Past Arson Cases (9/9/11)

CNN: Perry 'Squashed' Texas Execution Probe, Ex-Official Says (9/8/11)

Texas Tribune: Advocates Urge Panel to Continue Willingham Probe (9/8/11)

Texas Tribune: Sam Bassett, the Texas Tribune Interview (Video) - (9/8/11)

Huffington Post: Cameron Todd Willingham Execution -- Rick Perry's Role Deserves Scrutiny (9/2/11)

August 2011

Houston Chonicle Op-Ed by Barry Scheck: Forensic Science Commission Still Has Work To Do (08/14/11)

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Forensic Panel Should Be Aggressive, Despite AG Opinion (08/03/11)

July 2011

Houston Chronicle: Forensic Panel Off Willingham Case, Attorney General Says (08/29/11)

Texas Tribune: New Leader for Inquiry Into Forensic Evidence (7/22/11)

May 2011

KXAN: Bradley Out As Texas Forensic Panel Head (05/26/11)

April 2011

Associated Press: Texas Forensic Panel Adopts Arson Recommendations (04/15/11)

January 2011

Dallas Morning News: Texas Forensic Panel Delays Final Decision in Willingham Arson Case (1/21/11)

Houston Chronicle, Column by Rick Casey: Willingham: Scientists vs. Lawyers (01/09/11)

Austin American Statesman: Arson Experts Testify Investigation Violated Standards (01/07/11)

CNN:
Fire Expert Criticizes Investigation That Led to Execution (01/07/11)

October 2010

Associated Press: Texas Prosecutor Denies Showing Bias in Arson Case (10/18/10)

The Dallas Morning News: Forensic Panel Criticized Their Leader for Calling Willingham 'a Guilty Monster' (10/16/10)

The New York Times: Family's Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions (10/15/10)

Texas Observer: At Willingham Hearing, Science Finally Takes Center Stage (10/15/10)

The Wall Street Journal law blog: Texas Reopens Case of Man Executed For Arson, Murder (10/15/10)

Austin American-Statesman: Appellate Court Orders Halt to Willingham Inquiry  (10/14/10)

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Court blocks ruling in death-penalty inquiry (10/14/10)

Newsweek: Injustice, Texas Style (10/09/10)


September 2010

Texas Tribune: Forensic Commissioners Push Back Against Bradley (9/20/10)

Texas Tribune: Forensic Science Commission Takes Up Willingham (9/17/10)

Dallas Morning News Blog: Bradley loses, Forensics Panel Will Call Experts (9/17/10)

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: State panel declines to clear investigators in Willingham case (9/17/10)

Associated Press: Texas Panel Unwilling to End inquiry in arson case (9/17/10)

KERA Public TV and Radio for North Texas: Panel Unwilling To End Arson Inquiry & Midday Roundup (9/17/10)

Dallas Morning News Blog: Looks Like Forensics Chair Bradley Will Lose Battle (9/17/10)

Associated Press: Texas Panel Goes Into Closed Session in Arson Case (9/17/10)

Dallas Morning News: State Forensic Hearing on Cameron Todd Willingham Arson Case Goes Behind Closed Doors (9/17/10)

Associated Press: Texas Inquiry into Disputed Arson Case Could End (9/17/10)

Houston Chronicle (op-ed): Panel Must Clear the Air in Arson Case Investigation (9/17/10)

Austin American-Statesman: State Forensic Science Commission Takes up Arson Case Again (9/17/10)

Austin Chronicle: Fire Marshals Stand by Original Arson Report (9/16/10)

Houston Chronicle: Arson Panel's Draft Report Blasted (9/16/10)

Dallas Morning News: Editorial: Forensics Panel Should Hear Experts (9/16/10)

Associated Press: Lawmakers Criticize Panel's Arson Investigation (9/14/10)

Associated Press: Texas Panel Ready to End Disputed Arson Inquiry (9/14/10)

San Antonio Express: A Matter of Life and Death in Texas (9/14/10)

Reason Magazine: The Case for Bifurcated Trials (09/13/10)

Houston Chronicle: Forensic Revolt Again Is In Order (09/12/10)

Austin American-Statesman: Fire Marshal Backs Arson Finding (09/09/10)

Corsicana Daily Sun: Willingham Case on Science Panel's Agenda (9/6/10)

Houston Chronicle: Finding Ways to Reduce Wrongful Convictions (9/4/10)

August 2010

Burnt Orange blog: Rick Perry Seceded from the People of Texas (08/26/10)

Austin American-Statesman: Innocence Project Comments on Willingham Case (08/20/10)

Austin Chronicle: Forensic Science Commission Draws Heat (08/20/10)

July 2010

CNN: Texas state board says arson investigators used flawed science (7/26/10)

Houston Chronicle: Science Defeats DA 8-0 (7/26/10)

Houston Chronicle: Panel Cites ‘Flawed Science’ in Arson Case (7/26/10)

Austin American-Statesman: Commission: No negligence or misconduct by investigators in fatal fire (7/26/10)

Houston Chronicle: Dousing a Troublesome Arson Probe (7/22/10)

Houston Chronicle Op-Ed by Barry Scheck and Patricia Cox: Forensic Panel Must Resist Panel's Efforts at Sabotage (7/20/10)

Houston Chronicle: Forensic Panel must Resist Chair's Efforts at Sabotage (7/20/10)

May 2010

Houston Chronicle: Let’s Have a Cheer for Small Victories (5/25/10)

More media coverage...


Background on Broader Issues:

The Just Science Coalition: Supporting Forensic Reform to Improve the Accuracy of the Criminal Justice System

Understand the Causes: Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science

September 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on improving forensic science (referencing Willingham's case).

Background on the cases of 17 people exonerated through DNA testing after spending years on death row.

Martha Rhodes says:
Mar 10, 2015 09:21 PM

What I want to know is this? Did his wife think he was capable of this? Did she stay with him?

PAZ THAKRAR says:
Mar 26, 2015 08:04 AM

The innocent blood and murder of this man is on this states hand EXECUTE THE STATE - USA DEATH PENALTY IS BARBARIC AND ALSO DOES NOT REDUCE CRIME PERIOD - YOU SAY USA ARE LEADERS OF THE WORL SO WRONG IF THIS IS HAPPENING - Boo to the Usa to practise such inhuman treatment of there offenders -

Alejandro says:
Mar 30, 2015 10:43 PM

THATS SOMETHING I WAS LOOKING FOR TOO! DID SHE EVER PUT CHARGES?

The Reader says:
Jun 03, 2015 02:36 AM

If you read the investigative report by David Grann, "Trial by Fire", his wife stood by him from the onset and didn't think he could've done what he was accused of doing. There was really no motive whatsoever according to her. She was the only one who believed he was innocent. Although she divorced him later on, that detail is irrelevant. Though later on, she was swayed by the "documents and evidences", which we now know are proven corroborated by investigators then to make Willingham seem guilty. Regardless of what the wife believed however, it is now apparent that The State of Texas has murdered an innocent man in this one. That should never have been the case had those officials who assumed godly roles stepped outside of their hardcore prejudices, even for a second, and looked right at the cold-hard facts objectively. The life of a human is worth doubting the system for. Hope this innocent man rests in peace.

J Lott says:
Mar 10, 2015 09:44 PM

The prosecutor should be charged with murder.

Howard says:
Mar 11, 2015 12:09 AM

The forensic experts involved in his conviction and the prosecuting attorney should be charged with murder. If those involved in wrongfully convicting someone of murder had to suffer the same fate as the wrongfully convicted person, there'd be a lot fewer convictions of innocent people.

John says:
Mar 11, 2015 07:09 AM

So Texas, playing god and being judge of who lives,how do you bring him back?
Abolish these wrong killings.
The death penalty is barbaric, it does not deter crime and cheapens life.
Please come out of the Old Testament and lets at least try to live as Jesus taught.
I am not saying we will always succeed, but these policies do not even try.

Chelsie says:
Mar 11, 2015 08:17 AM

How are we so sure he didn't do it? All it says was they had an erroneous forensic analysis. It never mentions details. Maybe he was asleep when the fire occurred, that could be true. What if he intentionally planned the fire to start at a time when his wife wasn't home and he could honestly say he was asleep? No one know for sure. And I personally believe that the death penalty is a fair judgment for those who committed such heinous crimes. I know if someone was to have murdered/raped/tortured or any like crime was committed toward one of my loved ones, I would definitely justice.

John says:
Mar 19, 2015 04:51 PM

You are wrong and obviously do not understand the law. There was a "reasonable doubt" and that doubt involved the actual evidence. Don't be stupid.

Chelsie Smells says:
Jun 26, 2015 12:56 PM

Fuck your family ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

larry says:
Mar 11, 2015 09:45 AM

Texas law makers should go to the bible(GOD'S word. Deuteronomy
19:15. also known as common sense.

Curtis says:
Mar 11, 2015 11:40 AM

How do they know the wife didn't do it? She had the perfect alibi. Maybe she wanted to get rid of them all an start a new life. Just a thought.

TheCoonHunter says:
Jun 26, 2015 12:55 PM

Well damn. Can't wait until i get falsely charged with murder of my own family. Leave it up to the bums on the stand to accuse you of wrongful doings.

White Power

Blanche Dumont says:
Jul 01, 2015 04:27 PM

From what i read when a person is accused of murder in whatever way has it been done, and finally found guilty and sent to exécution, it should be a normal procédure to have a 3 parts of investigation by 3 différents groups of professionnals and 2 of the groups should end up with same résults of investigation to arrived to execution. Spécially when there is doubt about witness, motive, or Black person. That way the execution would be later and give Time to all parties involved to investigate thouroulghly before killing another person.

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