Huffpost Politics

Cameron Todd Willingham: Did Texas Execute An Innocent Man?

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Huffington Post blogger Barry Scheck, of the Innocence Project, weighs in on the new evidence revealed by an investigative report in the New Yorker on the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed in 2004 for the murder of his daughters.

Willingham was convicted of murdering his two young children by arson. He spent 12 years on death row in Texas before he was executed. Forensic science that supposedly proved the fire was intentionally set was central to Willingham's conviction was, in fact, completely invalid -- which the experts who testified should have known in 1992. A state forensic science commission in Texas is officially looking into the case and selected a widely respected expert to analyze whether the forensic testimony was valid. Last week the expert filed a report confirming what five other leading arson experts have found -- what passed for arson analysis in the Willingham case had no scientific basis, and the scientific facts in Willingham's case were the same as the case of Ernest Willis. In an entirely separate case, Willis was sent to death row in Texas for an arson murder of family members but, luckily, in his the state recognized the arson analysis was wrong. Willis was fully exonerated just months after Willingham was executed.

The state forensic commission in Texas is still finishing its work on Willingham's case, but David Grann's New Yorker article examines the entire case, including the jailhouse informant who plainly gave false testimony and the circumstantial evidence, flimsy in the first place, that was not what it appeared to be to the jury. After reading Grann's report, fair-minded people will know beyond a reasonable doubt that an innocent person was executed

The New Yorker story is a fantastic piece of reporting, and well worth the full read. It begins:

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 children--Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber--were trapped inside.