Cameron Todd Willingham, 36, was executed by lethal injection on 17 February 2004 in Huntsville, Texas for the murder of his three children.
On 23 December 1991, the Corsicana home of Cameron Willingham burned. Willingham's three children -- 2-year-old Amber Kuykendall and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron Willingham, died of smoke inhalation. Willingham, 36, escaped. Willingham told authorities that the fire started while he and the children were asleep. His wife, Stacy Kuykendall, was not home at the time.
An investigation showed that a flammable liquid -- possibly charcoal starter fluid -- had been poured throughout the house. Willingham was arrested on 8 January.
At Willingham's trial, the fire marshall testified that the floors, front threshold, and front concrete porch were burned, which only occurs when an accelerant has been used to purposely burn these areas. He further testified that these areas are typically set on fire to impede firefighters in their rescue attempts.
Other testimony showed that Willingham deliberately set the fire to kill his children. Neighbors testified that Willingham came outdoors as the house began smoldering, before flames were visible from the outside. He first pushed his car away to protect it from being burned, then "crouched down" in the front yard. Despite their pleas, Willingham refused to go into the house to attempt to rescue the children, they said. A firefighter testified that Willingham showed no grief over his children's deaths, but became upset upon discovering that his dart board was burned. A neighbor also testified that on the day after the fire, Willingham and his wife were going through the debris while playing music and laughing.
Willingham was convicted of burglary three months before the fire, and was serving a sentence of 6 years' probation. Testimony at his trial indicated that Willingham had a history of violence and family abuse, including an incident where he beat his pregnant wife with a telephone to try to force a miscarriage.
A jury convicted Willingham of capital murder in August 1993 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in October 1995. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
"Dude's a liar," Willingham said in an interview from death row, referring to the fire marshall. He called his conviction "a farce." He suggested that a lantern spilled fluid when a shelf collapsed, and then 2-year-old Amber, who was "fascinated with everything," accidentally started the fire. "Either that, or someone came in with the intent to kill me and the children," he told a reporter.
Willingham said that his wife was out shopping that morning, and he was asleep when he was awakened by Amber's cry of "Daddy, Daddy." He saw smoke, jumped out of bed, and without seeing Amber, ordered her out of the house. He tried to get to the twins' room, but couldn't get past the flames. He ran outside to get help because the house had no phone. He scoffed at his neighbors' accusations that he did nothing to save his children. "People can tell you they'd do this or they'd do that," he said. "Let me drop you in a burning house and you show me what you'd do."
"They were great kids," Willingham said, but "I was a sorry husband - a piece of crap as husbands go ... I was so full of myself and dumb."
Stacy Kuykendall initially supported her husband and testified on his behalf at his trial. Recently, however, she told a reporter that she no longer believes his account of the events that killed her children. "You have to understand, I didn't get to sit in the courtroom and hear anything," she told a reporter. Kuykendall said that when Willingham related his account of the fire to her during a prison visit, she thought parts of his story didn't made sense. So, she read the trial transcripts and "acted like a jury," coming to the conclusion that her husband was guilty.
"I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit," Willingham said at his execution. He also said, "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. I gotta go, Road Dog." Next, he expressed love to someone named Gabby, then hurled obscenities at Kuykendall, who was watching from an observation room. Willingham said that he hoped she would "rot in Hell," and attempted to make an obscene gesture with his hand, which was strapped to the gurney. He was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m.
By David Carson. Posted on 18 February 2004. Updated on 23 February 2004.
In January 2004, when Cameron Willingham's execution was a few weeks away, some of his friends and relatives contacted Gerald Hurst, a fire investigator, and persuaded him to look at his case at no charge. After looking at the videotape fire marshall Manuel Vasquez and assistant fire chief Douglas Fogg made of the scene in 1991, and other evidence from the trial record, Hurst concluded that Vasquez and Fogg's investigative methods were unscientific, and there was no evidence of arson. Willingham's lawyer submitted Hearst's report to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, but they declined to recommend clemency, and Willingham was subsequently executed.
In December 2004, investigative reporters Maurice Possley and Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune learned of Hurst's report and asked three fire experts to examine Vasquez and Fogg's investigation. They concurred with Hurst's report.
In 2005, Texas established a forensic science commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. The commision hired arson expert Craig Beyler to investigate the Willingham fire as well as the arson case of Ernest Ray Willis, another Texas death row inmate. (Willis was freed in 2004 after a judge decided that Willis did not receive a fair trial, for reasons which had nothing to do with the arson investigation.) In August 2009, Beyler released his report on both fires. Regarding the Willingham fire, Beyler wrote that fire marshall Vasquez had a "predisposition to find arson in his cases" and that he had a poor understanding of fire science, either by current standards or by 1991 standards. In particular, Beyler criticized statements by Vasquez such as "The fire tells a story, I am just the interpreter" as indicating a mystical or psychic approach to fire investigation, not a scientific one. Beyler did not conclude that the fire could not have been caused by arson, but he did state that Vasquez failed to give other causes proper consideration.
An article in the New Yorker in September 2009 presented Willingham's case and the criticisms by Hurst, Beyler, and others of the arson investigation. This article heightened national awareness of the case and questioned whether Texas had executed an innocent man.
Corsicana Fire Chief Donald McMullan prepared a response to Beyler's report. McMullan wrote that Vasquez's statements, which Beyler said revealed the mindset of a mystic or psychic, "may simply be a colloquial way of expressing what physical facts can tell an experienced investigator." He also pointed out that the defense attempted to find their own fire expert for the trial, but they could not find one who would contradict fire marshall Vasquez, thus contradicting Beyler's conclusion that Vasquez's methods were out of step with contemporary standards. McMullan also wrote that Beyler disregarded Willingham's inconsistent explanations about how the fire started, and misread or ignored much of the trial testimony about the fire.
The Forensic Sciences Commission had not yet analyzed Beyler's report or McMullan's rebuttal when its chairman and two members' terms expired in October 2009. Governor Rick Perry appointed a new commission chairman, John Bradley, who has stated that he wants for himself and the other commision members to review the case before moving forward with it.
In October 2009, Willingham's wife, Stacy Kuykendall, responded to the new round of allegations that her husband was innocent. In an essay printed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Kuykendall wrote that before his execution, he confessed to her that he started the fire. At the time of the fire, Kuykendall wrote, she had been threatening to divorce him because he hit her when she was holding their daughter, Amber. Two weeks before his execution, she visited him on death row, and he asked her if she remembered threatening to divorce him. "I told him yes I did say that," Kuykendall wrote. "He told me that he believed I was going to but he couldn't let that happen ... that I could never have Amber or the twins with anyone else but him. He told me he was sorry and that he hoped I could forgive him one day."
By David Carson. Posted on 28 October 2009.