Killing an innocent man

September 15, 2009

Nicole Colson reports on the case of a Texas man who was falsely accused of killing his three children in an arson--but that was just the beginning of the nightmare.

CAMERON TODD Willingham was executed by the state of Texas for a crime that he didn't commit.

That is the conclusion of a lengthy investigation published this month in the New Yorker. In devastating detail, reporter David Grann lays out the facts of a case that contains all the familiar hallmarks of wrongful convictions--junk science, inept defense lawyers, a jailhouse snitch, and a court system designed to make it next-to-impossible for the innocent to clear their names.

Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004. He was convicted of setting a December 23, 1991, fire that killed his three young daughters--2 year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron--while his wife Stacy went to the Salvation Army to buy the children Christmas presents.

Witnesses at the scene described Willingham as frantic to save the children. Neighbors who saw the smoke ran to the house and found Willingham on the porch wearing only blue jeans, his chest blackened with soot, and his hair and eyelids singed from the fire. He had been trying to reach Amber, whose cries had awakened him. Once outside, he broke through the windows of the children's bedroom with a stick as neighbors called the fire department--but the flames were too intense.

Cameron Todd Willingham with his daughter Amber
Cameron Todd Willingham with his daughter Amber

He would later have to be restrained--eventually handcuffed--after repeatedly trying to run back into the house. "My babies are burning up!" neighbors heard him scream again and again. "My babies."

Willingham gave authorities permission to look through the house. "I know we might not ever know all the answers," he told authorities, "but I'd just like to know why my babies were taken from me."

BUT IT wasn't long before Texas authorities were focusing on the idea that he had deliberately set the fire. His motive? According to Corsicana, Texas, District Attorney Pat Batchelor, "The children were interfering with his beer drinking and dart throwing."

Witnesses who had originally told how devastated Willingham had been by the fire changed their opinions as it became clear that investigators were focusing on him as a possible suspect--they now made much of his drinking and sometimes violent relationship with his young wife Stacy.

Fire investigators, who had concluded that the fire was started with a liquid accelerant, focused on the fact that Willingham had run out of the house barefoot--since if he had run outside by the path he claimed, he would have burned his feet. Since Willingham's feet were not burned, he must be guilty, investigators believed.

What you can do

The Texas Moratorium Network is asking people to sign a petition asking Gov. Rick Perry to admit that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent and that the fire that killed his children was not arson. The petitions will be delivered to Perry on October 24, at the 10th annual Texas March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

David Grann's New Yorker article "Trial by fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?" is available online.

Carl Beyler's report on the faulty investigation into the fire Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for is available online.

For more information about the fight against the death penalty in your area, and how to get involved, visit the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site.

Two weeks after the fire, Willingham was arrested and charged with murder--because there were multiple victims, he qualified for the death penalty under Texas law.

In a story all-too-familiar in capital cases, Willingham, who was unemployed, had to rely on public defenders. A jailhouse snitch named Johnny Webb would also come forward to claim that Willingham admitted while in jail that he set the fire using lighter fluid.

John Jackson, then the assistant district attorney in Corsicana, was shocked when Willingham--whose own lawyers believed he was guilty--refused to take a plea deal that would have spared him the death penalty if he pled guilty.

According to Willingham's stepmother Eugenia, defense attorney David Martin (a former state trooper) showed her and her husband photographs of the burned children, saying, "Look what your son did. You got to talk him into pleading, or he's going to be executed."

But Cameron Todd Willingham refused. "I ain't gonna plead to something I didn't do, especially killing my own kids," he said.

During the subsequent two-day trial, as Grann wrote:

The crux of the state's case...remained the scientific evidence gathered by [deputy fire marshal Manuel] Vasquez and [assistant fire chief Douglas] Fogg. On the stand, Vasquez detailed what he called more than "twenty indicators" of arson.

"Do you have an opinion as to who started the fire?" one of the prosecutors asked.

"Yes, sir," Vasquez said. "Mr. Willingham."

The prosecutor asked Vasquez what he thought Willingham's intent was in lighting the fire. "To kill the little girls," he said.

Defense attorneys called just one witness to the stand--the Willingham's babysitter. It took a jury just one hour to find Cameron Todd Willingham guilty.

DURING THE penalty phase of the trial, prosecutors went out of their way to portray Willingham as a "sociopath," focusing on the supposed meaning of Willingham's tattoo and the posters of rock bands hanging in the house. According to Grann:

When [Willingham's wife] Stacy was on the stand, Jackson grilled her about the "significance" of Willingham's "very large tattoo of a skull, encircled by some kind of a serpent."

"It's just a tattoo," Stacy responded.

"He just likes skulls and snakes. Is that what you're saying?"

"No. He just had--he got a tattoo on him."

The prosecution cited such evidence in asserting that Willingham fit the profile of a sociopath, and brought forth two medical experts to confirm the theory. Neither had met Willingham. One of them was Tim Gregory, a psychologist with a master's degree in marriage and family issues, who had previously gone goose hunting with Jackson, and had not published any research in the field of sociopathic behavior. His practice was devoted to family counseling.

At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60--a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham's house--and asked the psychologist to interpret it. "This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull," Gregory said; the image displayed "violence" and "death."

Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. "There's a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet," Gregory continued. "And all of these are in fire, depicting--it reminds me of something like Hell. And there's a picture--a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel...I see there's an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times, individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities."

The other psychiatrist called by the state was James Grigson, who "testified so often for the prosecution in capital-punishment cases that he had become known as Dr. Death," according to Grann.

Three years after Willingham's trial, Grigson would be expelled from the American Psychiatric Association on ethics violations for repeatedly making a "psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100 percent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts," Grann wrote.

Willingham, continued to fight to prove his innocence from behind bars--relying on the help of a prison pen-pal and friend Elizabeth Gilbert, who began corresponding with him in 1999 at the urging of a friend who was involved in anti-death penalty work. Gilbert began going over the facts of the case herself.

Interviewing jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, Gilbert found him to be paranoid. During Willingham's trial, he had admitted to being "mentally impaired" and having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Grann, just months after Gilbert visited Webb in 2000, Webb sent John Jackson, the assistant district attorney at the time of Willingham's trial, a Motion to Recant Testimony, declaring, "Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges."

Willingham's lawyer was not informed of Webb's recantation, and soon after, Webb withdrew his recantation.

In 2004, Gilbert, along with Cameron Todd Willingham's relatives, persuaded a fire investigation expert, Gerald Hurst, to look at the evidence in the case. Point by point, Hurst systematically debunked the claims made by arson investigators Vasquez and Fogg. Instead of arson, Hurst found that the fire was most likely started by a space heater or faulty wiring. Of the supposed "20 indicators" of arson that investigators had found, Hurst believed only one was scientifically valid--and that there was an easy explanation for it.

But the report prepared by Hurst--who had already helped to exonerate 10 other wrongly convicted people--was ignored by officials. According to Grann:

The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor's office and the board pertaining to Hurst's report. "The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government," Barry Scheck said. "The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor's office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence."

Days later, on February 13, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Willingham's request for clemency.

LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the time, explained the mindset of the board to Grann:

"You don't vote guilt or innocence. You don't retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order, and there are no glaring errors." He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, "in my time, there had never been one called." When I asked him why Hurst's report didn't constitute evidence of "glaring errors," he said, "We get all kinds of reports, but we don't have the mechanisms to vet them."

Willingham was put to death four days later on February 17, 2004.

"After his death," Grann wrote, "his parents were allowed to touch his face for the first time in more than a decade. Later, at Willingham's request, they cremated his body and secretly spread some of his ashes over his children's graves. He had told his parents, 'Please don't ever stop fighting to vindicate me.'"

WILLINGHAM'S CASE has all the hallmarks of wrongful convictions--and since his death, the case for his innocence has only gotten stronger. Several fire experts who have re-examined the case in the years since Willingham's execution agreed with Hurst's opinion that the fire wasn't arson.

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. Fire scientist Craig Beylor, who was hired by the commission, released a damning report into the Willingham case and that of another prisoner. In the report, wrote Grann, Beylor noted that investigators:

had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez's approach seemed to deny "rational reasoning" and was more "characteristic of mystics or psychics."

But scratch the surface of death penalty convictions in the U.S., and you'll find dozens of cases with equally stunning errors--particularly in Texas, the death penalty capital of the U.S.

According to a 2000 Dallas Morning News investigation, around one in every four inmates condemned to death in Texas was represented by court-appointed attorneys who had been "reprimanded, placed on probation, suspended or banned from practicing law by the State Bar" at some point in their careers.

The year after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, the state of Texas sent Frances Newton to her death. Newton's attorney at her trial was Ron Mock, who was notorious for his shoddy work on death penalty cases. What's more, the crime lab destroyed evidence that could have been re-tested to prove Frances' innocence--including the clothes Frances was wearing the night of the murders she supposedly committed.

As the Austin Chronicle reported before her execution, "There is no incontrovertible evidence against Newton, and the paltry evidence that does exist has been completely compromised. Moreover, her story is one more in a long line of Texas death row cases in which the prosecutions were sloppy or dishonest, the defenses incompetent or negligent, and the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial was honored only in name."

In a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Justice Antonin Scalia scoffed at the idea that there had been--or would ever be--an innocent person executed in the U.S. "[I]n every case of an executed defendant of which I am aware, [DNA] technology has confirmed guilt," Scalia said, adding that there was not "a single case--not one--in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit."

The case of Cameron Todd Willingham is rare--not because he was an innocent man wrongly accused, but because he is being proven innocent after his execution, which has happened only very rarely because investigations into cases end after executions. (The Texas commission is likely to avoid the question of Willingham's actual innocence, focusing on investigators' procedural conduct instead.)

But even Willingham's innocence may not be enough to raise doubts about the death penalty for the likes of Scalia. This August, dissenting from a Supreme Court ruling granting Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis a new trial based on his claims of innocence (and the fact that seven of nine "witnesses" against Davis have since recanted), Scalia argued against stopping Davis' execution on the grounds that "this Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial, but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent."

In other words, the Supreme Court has never dared to question a lower court's decision and stopped the execution of an innocent person. Innocence doesn't matter.

Proponents of capital punishment like Scalia claim the system ultimately "works," but the family and friends of Cameron Todd Willingham--who was let down by the justice system at every turn--know that is a lie. With every new revelation about incompetent "experts," bungled investigations and wrongful convictions, that system is further exposed.

It's time to end the death penalty.

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