Just for the record. I am not in favor of the death penalty. It’s not that I don’t think people guilty of heinous crimes, shouldn’t pay the ultimate price. The problem I have is when the system, and a jury and a prosecutor, get it completely wrong. It’s been known to happen. And when it does, there’s no turning back. You cannot undo what has been done. Therein lies the problem. Sorry, but the way I see it, if you can’t guarantee that every person, who receives the death penalty, was one hundred percent guilty of the worst crime imaginable, then I’m sorry to say as a punishment it ain’t worth having. If you get it wrong, all you’ve done is kill an innocent human being. And when that happens, we are talking about not one but two equally abhorrent crimes. The case I am about to recite is the poster child for why the death penalty doesn’t work. In fact, this case is so outrageous and so compelling I want to deconstruct and examine the sum of its many parts. You can’t really do justice to this story with just one blog post. So this is the beginning of a series. To misquote that infamous Bette Davis line, fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The good old State of Texas, which has no hesitation whatsoever about using the death penalty, executed a man called Cameron Todd Willingham by lethal injection in 2004.
Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns.
Willingham’s wife, Stacy Kuykendall, was not home at the time. Prosecutors claim he deliberately started the fire to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters by arson in 1992 and was executed 12 years later. He claimed he was innocent right up until his death, using his last words to say: “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit.” Actually he said a bit more than that: “ 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.”
Of course, guilty people can still claim they are innocent right up until the time they take their last breath. Willingham was offered a plea deal where he could avoid the death penalty. All he had to do was say he did it. But he refused. Again I draw no great significance from that either. What was always going to ultimately decide his guilt or innocence was the evidence, more specifically the forensic evidence. And that is precisely where this case begins to fatally unravel.
The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story weatherboard building in a poor neighbourhood. Flames spread along the walls, through doorways, blistering paint, tiles and furniture. Smoke rose up to the ceiling, then curled downward, invading each room and through crevices in the windows.
Buffie Barbee, eleven years old, lived two houses down from the Willinghams. She was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street to see the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, his bare chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He screamed, “My babies are burning up!” His three children, one-year-old twin girls, and a two-year-old were trapped inside. Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Diane raced down the street to get help he found an object to break the children’s bedroom window but fire lashed through the hole. He broke another window and flames burst through that as well. He retreated to the backyard, kneeling in front of the house. A neighbor later told police that Willingham intermittently cried, “My babies!” then fell silent, as if he had “blocked the fire out of his mind.”
Within minutes, the first firemen arrived, and Willingham approached them, shouting his children were trapped inside the burning house. He grew more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck to calm him down. Willingham explained his wife, Stacy, left the house earlier that morning, and he was woken from sleep by Amber screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!”“My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,”he said “I couldn’t get my babies out.” While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, carrying an unconscious but still alive Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, twenty-three-years old and physically strong, ran to see her, then suddenly headed toward the children’s bedroom. Monaghan and another man restrained him. “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection,” Monaghan said. “I received a black eye.” One of the first firemen at the scene told investigators, at an earlier point, he also restrained Willingham. “Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to try and go into the house,” he said. Willingham was taken to a hospital, where he was told Amber, who was found in the master bedroom, died from smoke inhalation. Kameron and Karmon were discovered lying on the children’s bedroom floor, their bodies severely burned but they too, died from smoke inhalation. A community collection helped the Willingham’s pay for the funerals of their children.
Fire investigators, tried to determine the cause of the tragedy. Willingham gave authorities permission to search the house: “I know we might not ever know all the answers, but I’d just like to know why my babies were taken from me,” he said.
Douglas Fogg, the assistant fire chief in Corsicana, conducted the initial investigation. He’d been fighting fires or what he calls “the beast”—for more than twenty years, and was a certified arson investigator. “You learn that fire talks to you,” Fogg would later say. He was soon joined by one of the leading arson investigators in Texas, a deputy fire marshal called Manuel Vasquez who had an extremely high opinion of his own abilities. He would frequently say: “Fire does not destroy evidence—it creates it.” And: “The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” Vasquez was convinced there was very little he didn’t know about the crime of arson. Once, he was asked under oath whether he had ever been mistaken in a case. “If I have, sir, I don’t know,” he responded. “It’s never been pointed out.”
Vasquez and Fogg visited the Willinghams’ fire gutted house four days after the blaze. Following the investigators protocol, they moved from the least burned areas to the worst. “It is a systematic method,” Vasquez later testified. “I’m just collecting information. . . . I have not made any determination. I don’t have any preconceived idea.” The men slowly toured the perimeter of the house, taking notes and photographs before entering the burned out building. In the kitchen, Vasquez and Fogg found only smoke and heat damage—a sign that this was not the source of the fire. In the master bedroom, where Amber’s body was found, most of the damage was also from smoke and heat, which suggested that the fire began down the hallway. The two arson investigators noticed deep charring along the base of the walls. Because hot gases from the burning become buoyant, flames will ordinarily burn upward. But Vasquez and Fogg discovered that the fire burned low down, causing peculiar char patterns on the floor, shaped like puddles. Vasquez followed the “burn trailer”—the path burned by the fire—which led from the hallway into the children’s bedroom. According to arson experts, flammable or combustible liquid doused on a floor can cause a fire to concentrate in these kinds of pockets, which is why investigators describe them as “pour patterns” or “puddle configurations.” In the Willingham fire, the floor had some of the deepest burn marks and Vasquez concluded it was hotter than the ceiling. Given that heat rises, this was, in his words, “not normal.” Fogg examined a piece of glass from one of the broken windows. It contained a spiderweb-like pattern—which fire investigators call “crazed glass.” Forensic experts describe the effect as a key indicator that the fire burned “fast and hot,” meaning it was, more than likely, fuelled by a liquid accelerant, causing the glass to fracture.
The men then looked again at what appeared to be a distinct burn trail through the house. It went from the children’s bedroom, into the corridor, then turned to the right and out the front door. Even the wood under the door’s aluminum frame was charred. On the concrete floor of the front porch, Vasquez and Fogg noticed something else they thought was unusual: brown stains, which, they reported, were consistent with the presence of an accelerant. Vasquez identified three places where, in his opinion, the fire originated: in the hallway, in the children’s bedroom, and at the front door. Vasquez would later testify that multiple origins pointed to one conclusion: the fire was “intentionally set by human hands.” Both investigators claimed to have a clear vision of what happened. Someone had poured liquid accelerant throughout the children’s room, then poured more along the adjoining hallway and out the front door, creating a “fire barrier” that stopped anyone from escaping.
The investigators collected samples of burned materials from the house and sent them to a laboratory that could detect the presence of liquid accelerant. The lab’s chemist reported that one of the samples, taken near the front door, contained evidence of “mineral spirits,” a substance often found in charcoal-lighter fluid. The fire was now considered to be arson and this was a triple homicide. Cameron Todd Willingham—the only person, other than the victims, inside the house at the time of the fire—became the prime suspect.
But as you will learn in part two of this story, looks can be very deceiving and what may seem like damning evidence can suddenly become discredited by the simplest of explanations.