In December 21, 1991. the house that Cameron Todd Willingham shared with his wife and his three little girls, burned to the ground.
The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, 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; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His childrenâ€”Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amberâ€”were trapped inside.
At 6:20 p.m. on February 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by lethal injection for deliberately setting the fire that caused his three daughters to be burned to death. The jury concluded that Willingham fully intended to kill his children.
In a remarkable article for this week’s issue of the New Yorker Magazine, journalist David Grann looks at the case against Willingham. The conclusions are heartbreaking and disturbing—particularly in what they suggest about the use of expert witnesses, in this case an arson investigator and a deputy fire marshal named Manuel Vasquez, who told anyone who asked that he believed himself never to be wrong, and who nearly always came down on the side of guilt.
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.”
Using an elaborate set of “proofs,” Vasquez told the jury that Willingham had set the fire in the girls’ room using a liquid accelerant.
Throughout the proceedings, Willingham steadfastly maintained that he was innocent. He even rejected a deal offered by the prosecutors that would have kept him off of death row because it required him to admit to the crime the he insisted he did not commit.
Then in January 2004, a few weeks before Willingham was to be executed, Willingham’s lawyer along with his friend and supporter, a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert with whom he’d developed a platonic friendship through a prison pen pal program, talked acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, Dr. Gerald Hurst, into reexamining the file.
When Hurst subjected Vasquez’s conclusions to exhaustive examination , he concluded that Vasquez’s analysis of the Willingham fire was made of myth, gut-feeling and smoke. It did not conform at all with scientific knowledge about fire behavior.
Based on the evidence, Hurst wrote…
…..he had little doubt that it was an accidental fireâ€”one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.” Hurst wrote his report in such a rush that he didn’t pause to fix the typos.
Willingham’s lawyer rushed copies of Hurst’s report to the governor of Texas and to the fifteen members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, They were unmoved. It appears that they likely did not read the report.
Willingham was executed four days later.
When he was asked if he had any last words Willingham said,:
“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 twelve 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.”
Last Tuesday, August 25, the findings of a team of state-hired experts released their initial 64-page report on the Willingham fire. The team, headed by Dr. Craig L. Beyler, found the same thing that Hurst had found in 2004. The 2009 Beyler team also concurred with the findings of a 2006 investigation by five fire-investigation experts hired by the Innocence Project.
Beyler wrote that Vasquez’s conclusions seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and were more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.”
The Chicago Tribune, which has been following the story closely since 2004, wrote the following after they reviewed the Beyler report, which they called “a withering critique”:
Among Beyler’s key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams’ house in the small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene, and wrongly concluded Willingham’s injuries could not have been caused as he said they were.
The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had “limited understanding” of fire science. The fire marshal “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,” he wrote.
The marshal’s findings, he added, “are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”
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.
According to the Dallas Morning News, a final report will be issued in early 2010.
I have only told you the bare bones of the story. For the rest, read the New Yorker article.
Here, also, is a link to the full Beyler report.