Three years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonio Scalia wrote:
"[There has not been] a single case -- not one -- in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops."
We knew then, though, that innocents had been executed. So we issued a report entitled "Innocent and Executed: Four Chapters in the Life of America's Death Penalty." In that report, we told the stories of four such men: Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna, Larry Griffin and Cameron Todd Willingham.
Despite investigative reports appearing in the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and the St. Louis Post Dispatch that told these compelling and disturbing stories, these individuals did not become household names. Much more needs to be done to make the public aware that indeed the unspeakable has occurred -- innocent people have been executed.
We now refocus attention on the case of one of the four innocent and executed, Cameron Todd Willingham. His story was recently highlighted in a chilling and compelling New Yorker article, "Trial by Fire." With the gripping style of a summer novel, reporter David Grann leads us through this tragic story to the inevitable conclusion that an innocent man was punished for a crime he did not commit.
Willingham's conviction and death sentence for the murder of his children rested on the theory that he had doused the floor of his children's bedroom and the hall with a flammable fluid. Investigators were never able to determine a real motive, but concluded that the fire was caused by arson. They found what they thought were "pour patterns" or "puddle configurations" and other evidence, which they believed confirmed that the fire had been deliberate.
In addition, the children's bedroom windows were broken in a spider-web-like pattern known to fire investigators as "crazed glass." Investigators believed this was proof that the fire burned very hot, and must have been fueled by a liquid accelerant. The theory was further supported by a chemist who claimed that a sample taken from the threshold of the house's front door contained traces of "mineral spirits" found in lighter fluid.
Add to all of this a portrait painted by the prosecution of Willingham that was less than flattering. Unemployed at the time, he had a history of womanizing, alcohol, paint sniffing and trouble with the law as a teenager. Willingham had cheated on his wife and been physically abusive of her -- even when she was pregnant. He had a tattoo of a skull and serpent on one arm, and posters featuring the band Iron Maiden, a hooded skull with wings and a hatchet and fallen angel.
The capstone of the prosecution's case was jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who had contacted authorities to say Willingham had supposedly confessed to using "some kind of lighter fluid" to set the fire.
Even Willingham's relatives believed he had started the fire. But they pleaded with authorities to spare the family the added trauma of a capital trial, and Willingham was offered a deal to save his life. His lawyer, who also thought he was guilty, was shocked when he did not take the deal. The attorney pressed family members to persuade him to change his mind.
Willingham refused, saying: "I ain't gonna plead to something I didn't do, especially killing my own kids." He went to trial in August 1992, and after all this evidence was presented, the jury took less than an hour to return with a guilty verdict. Willingham's appeals were exhausted, and claiming innocence to the last moment, he was executed on February 17, 2004.
Just before his execution, Willingham's case came to the attention of acclaimed scientist and fire investigator Dr. Gerald Hurst. Dr. Hurst, who is widely credited with setting the scientific standard in forensic arson investigations, reviewed the evidence and determined that the conclusions reached by prosecution experts about the fire's origin were, in fact, not supported by science:
1) It was not true that the "puddle configurations" investigators observed could only have been caused by a fire started by an incendiary liquid - tests conducted by law enforcement in an eerily similar case revealed that the same patterns appeared in a fire that was not caused by an accelerant.
2) It was not true that the "crazed glass" was evidence that the fire had burned "hot and fast" as a result of being set by an accelerant. Experience and observations from other house fires explained the cause of the "crazed glass pattern" as the rapid cooling that resulted from the glass coming in contact with water from fire hoses.
3) It was not true that evidence that the fire was extremely hot proved that an accelerant had been used. Well-established science indicates that wood fires burn at the same temperature as gasoline-fueled fires.
4) And what of traces of an accelerant on the front porch? Photographs taken before the fire, and confirmed by neighbors, indicated that the family used a charcoal grill on the front porch and stored a container of lighter fluid there. When flames exploded from the house, the grill melted and the container of lighter fluid had burned. Water from the fire hoses likely spread the charcoal lighter fluid from the burned container into the house.
As the scientific building blocks of the prosecution's case crumbled, so did the testimony of Mr. Webb, who went back and forth until his death about whether he actually told the truth about Willingham's jailhouse confession.
Based on his review of the evidence and science, Dr. Hurst believes that the fire was accidental -- likely caused by a space heater in the children's room or faulty wiring. This renowned scientist shredded the so-called scientific evidence, and made it clear that Willingham was innocent.
Merely telling you about this article does not do it justice. Read it yourself, and if you're not 100% convinced that an innocent man was executed, at least ask yourself this question: can you live with the finality of death as punishment when a case like this leaves so much doubt?
CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM.
If Cameron Todd Willingham had been serving a life sentence in Texas, rather than a death sentence, we would in all likelihood be rejoicing today. He could have joined the 135 other prisoners freed from death row since 1973 after being found innocent, and we'd be celebrating his life instead of regretting his execution.
But we are not powerless. There is something we can do.
Shout it from the rooftops. CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM.
CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM did not start that fire.
CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM WAS INNOCENT AND EXECUTED.
We can make sure that everyone knows the name CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM, and work so that no other innocents are executed. Join our campaign to shout it from the rooftops at www.ncadp.org learn what you can do to set this right and help us End the Death Penalty.
Follow Diann Rust-Tierney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/diannatncadp