Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Texas Executed an Innocent Person: Cameron Todd Willingham

The Chicago Tribune is breaking the story that the investigator for the Texas Forensic Science Commission is going to report that the fire for which Cameron Todd Willingham was sentenced to death for setting to murder his children was an accidental fire and not arson. Willingham always maintained his innocence. If the TFSC takes the investigator's report and accepts his conclusions then it could acknowledge in its own report that Texas has executed an innocent person. The Chicago Tribune first reported on Willingham's possible innocence in 2004 and followed up in 2006.

In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule a deadly house fire was an arson -- a finding that led to the murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in Texas, home to the country's busiest death chamber. If the commission reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.

Indeed, the report concludes there was no evidence to determine that the December 1991 fire was even set, and it leaves open the possibility the blaze that killed three children was an accident and there was no crime at all -- the same findings found in a Chicago Tribune investigation of the case published in December 2004.

Willingham, the father of those children, was executed in February 2004. He protested his innocence to the end.

The Tribune obtained a copy of the review by Craig Beyler, of Hughes Associates Inc., which was conducted for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created to investigate allegations of forensic error and misconduct. The re-examination of the Willingham case comes as many forensic disciplines face scrutiny for playing a role in wrongful convictions that have been exposed by DNA and other scientific advances.

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.
Accompanied by 300 supporters standing outside the gates of the Texas Governor's Mansion, family members (pictured) of Cameron Todd Willingham delivered a letter to Gov Perry on October 28, 2006 asking him to stop executions and investigate the case of their step son/uncle to determine if he was wrongfully executed. Eugenia Willingham slipped the letter, along with a copy of an article from the Chicago Tribune that concluded that her stepson was probably innocent, through the bars of the front gate of the mansion and left it lying on the walkway leading to the front door of the mansion. A DPS trooper on duty refused to take the letter, so Eugenia left it on the walkway. According to a Public Information Request sent to Perry by TMN, we know that his staff later retrieved the letter and delivered it to Perry's office, however he never responded to Willingham's family. h/t Stop Executions Blog

Below is a copy of the letter
The Honorable Rick Perry
Governor of Texas
Austin, Texas

October 28, 2006

Dear Governor Perry,

We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.

Todd was not the only innocent person who has been executed in Texas. There have been reports in the media that Ruben Cantu and Carlos De Luna were also innocent people who were executed in Texas. It is too late to save Todd’s life or the lives of Ruben Cantu or Carlos De Luna, but it is not too late to save other innocent people from being executed. We are here today to urge you to be the leader that Texas needs in order to make sure that Texas never executes another innocent person. There is a crisis in Texas regarding the death penalty and we ask you to address the crisis. Because the public can no longer be certain that Texas is not executing innocent people, we urge you to stop all executions.

Strapped to a gurney in Texas' death chamber, just moments from his execution for setting a fire that killed his three daughters, our son/uncle, Todd Willingham, declared his innocence one last time, saying "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." Todd is now dead and can no longer speak for himself, so we have come to Austin to speak for him.

Before Todd’s execution, you were given a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction, but you did not stop the execution. The author of the report, Gerald Hurst, has said, "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire."

Another report issued in 2006 by a panel of national arson experts brought together by the Innocence Project concluded that the fire that killed Todd’s three daughters was an accident. The report says that Todd’s case is very similar to the case of Ernest Willis, who was convicted of arson murder and sentenced to death in 1987. Willis served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated in 2004 – the same year Todd was executed. The report says that neither of the fires which Todd and Ernest Willis were convicted of setting were arson. The report notes that the evidence and forensic analysis in the Willingham and Willis cases "were the same," and that "each and every one" of the forensic interpretations that state experts made in both men's trials have been proven scientifically invalid. In other words, Todd was executed based on “junk science”.

Please look into our son/uncle’s case and ask the District Attorney in Corsicana to reopen the investigation into the crime for which my brother was wrongfully executed. You should also establish an Innocence Commission in the next session of the Texas Legislature that could investigate my brother’s case, as well as other cases of possible wrongful executions, such as Ruben Cantu and Carlos De Luna.

Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. Texas also needs a statewide Office of Public Defenders for Capital Cases. Such an office will go a long way towards preventing innocent people from being executed. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.

We look forward to hearing from you and we pledge to work with you to ensure that executions of innocent people are stopped.

Yours sincerely,

Eugenia Willingham
Stepmother of Cameron Todd Willingham who raised him from the age of 13 months

Trina Willingham Quinton
Niece of Cameron Todd Willingham

Joshua Easley
Nephew of Cameron Todd Willingham


G M Larkin said...

t takes both moral and zivilcourage to admit a mistake of the caliber that killed Mr Willingham -- a victim of cold blooded premeditated murder.. It is cowrdess to blithley ignore the self evident facts thyat Willingham was convicted on tainted evidence of an expert --- something that the Supreme Court has prohibited in several cases, the semina one being Mesarosch v the United States 356 US 1.

It clearly appears that Willoingham was convicted on voodoo ravings -- not even voodoo science--- and I put it to Mr Perrty and the great state of Tecas to fess up, and admit its mistake --- as ie was a fata mistake. The proof inn this case --- as I undertand it, was entiorely from a fire marshal whose knowledge of fires was embryonic, and all wrong; the investigation was not in any size shapem or mannner proper, and if a fire maershal gave medical evidence thatvthe injuries Willingham suffered were not caused by debis as he claimed, this fire marshal was out of his scope of practice.. By definition, a trial resulting ina conviction based on tainted eveidence is not a fair trial, and there is enought precedent to void this conviction.

The question now remains: given that Willingham was innocent, how many other men and women executed in Texas were de facto innocent? I am aware of several close calls, current cases, where no rational jury would convict on what is now known; but false evidence . A rush to judgement, and a callous appellate system can cover up just so much. ^The deeper the coverup and the refusal to accept reality will,only hrm Texas in nthe long run.

As a person deeply committed to abolish the death penalty --- except for New York Damyankee fans--- I am happyb that people are realizing that a mistake can and did happen, but I grieve forn Mr Willingham and his kin, kinowing that justice was denied him, and he was a murder victim, killed by the greatstate of Texas.

The moral tothis sad story is clear: do the peoplem of Texas have the courage to act the way the moral points, or are they just a band of murdering cowards, unwilling to admit a fatal mistake?

G MM Larkin

anonymous said...

I don't live in Texas BUT WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS OF ARSON is'ntt just a Texas epidemic it is a UNITED STATES EPIDEMIC! I myself was wrongfully convicted of ARSON! I beleive that my personal conviction could have been avoiufed IF:

The fire investigator had to:

keep quiet where the "media" is concerned until AFTER he got the "forensic's test" back from the State lab. The investigator arrested me on a Monday put on the news that I had poured a substance on the floor of my house and started it on fire! On Tuesday the forensic's report's came back that NOTHING had been poured on my house! the problem here is......The investigator had ALREADY RUINED MY REPUTATION by PREMATURELY putting me on the news! I feel and have always felt that the fire investigator went ahead and PUSHED for a conviction because without a conviction he could have been sued for FALSE IMPRISONMENT!

The next thing wrong with fire investigators is unlike police officers there is NO INTERNAL AFFAIRS to report them to in the event of wrong doings! I feel that IF personal from the footed department is going be given "ARREST POWER'S" they should fall under the same scruitney that police officers AND BE REQUIRED to answer to POLICE INTERNAL AFFAIRS!

ACTUALLY the fire department should be required to create their OWN INTERNAL AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT because as it is there is NO WHERE FOR THE PUBLIC to turn to in the event that the fire personal is suspected to of have done something wrong!


There are 10 test that can be done to prove arson or innocence the investigators should be required to take ALL TEN TEST'S BEFORE talking to media personel! I say this BECAUSE this way the truth is found BEFORE the investigators talk to the media say the fire is "ARSON" when it is'ntt then they feel they HAVE TO HAVE A CONVICTION.in order to keep the fire department from being sued and in some cases they may feel that they HAVE TO GET A CONVICTION un order to not have repremend AND to KEEP THEIR JOBA! I beleive this is one of the reasons that EVEN THOUGH I WAS "INNOCENT" OF COMMITING "ARSON" I beleive one of the REASONS for my conviction was so that the investigator WOULDN'T LOOSE HIS JOB I beleive he would have done ANYTHING TO KEEP HIS JOB including PUT AN INNOCENT PERSON IN PRISON to save his own skin!

The profession of ARSON INVESTIGATOR should "REQUIRE" MORE THAN just on the job trainning BUT it should require at the VERY LEAST an assoiates degree in fire science and investigations! I say this because in some cases it's "ROOKIE FIRE INVESTIGATORS" that's accusing people of setting fire's!

Wake up AMERICA arson investigation's need's a SERIOUS OVERHAUL where fire investigations are concerned! I know what you're thinking...:...this stuff.doesn't happen to me......it happens to "other people" ! Well get your head out of the cloud's....once in a while....YOU ARE THE "OTHER PEOPLE" that you're thinking of when you say "other people"!! CALL OR WRITE YOUR CONGRESS MEN/WOMEN and demand change to keep innocent people out of prison AND AWAY FROM THE DEATH PENALTY! AND.......YES SOMETHING LIKE THIS COULD happen to you! I'm sure if it did .....you would want to level the scales of justice!