Cameron Willingham never stopped insisting he was innocent of murder. Even as he lay strapped to a gurney awaiting execution, the burly Corsicana auto mechanic denied setting the house blaze in which his 1-year-old twins and 2-year-old stepdaughter were incinerated.
Now, 17 years after the deadly fire and four years after the execution, a state commission charged with investigating negligence and misconduct complaints against forensic labs has agreed to look into allegations that Willingham was convicted and sentenced to die on fire officials' faulty testimony.
Meeting Friday in Houston, the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission unanimously authorized the investigation in response to a complaint filed by The Innocence Project, a New York City-based group dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.
The commission also agreed to investigate a 1986 West Texas arson fire in which two people died. Oilfield worker Ernest Willis, 63, was sentenced to die for the crime. But just months after Willingham's execution, a judge found Willis had been convicted on faulty scientific evidence and he was freed.
"These two cases in Texas are just the tip of the iceberg," Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck said in an e-mail statement. "Across Texas and around the country, people are convicted of arson based on junk science that has been completely discredited for years."
The New York group buttressed its call for the investigations with a 48-page analysis of testimony from both trials. A five-member panel of national fire experts, who conducted the analysis, found much of the trials' expert testimony relied on outdated, invalid investigative criteria and called for improved training of fire investigators and prosecutors who handle such cases.
Using faulty standards
Commissioner Alan Levy, a member of the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office in Fort Worth, suggested that arson witnesses might not have been guilty of misconduct if they testified using standards accepted at the time.
"What you're saying," he told Innocence Project researcher Gabriel Oberfield, who was present for the session, "is that it was pretty much the Wild West back then. That the state of the science was dismal."
Oberfield responded that reliable investigative standards may or may not have been available at the time of the trial, but had been adopted long before Willingham's execution.
Investigative agencies, he contended, have a "continuing obligation" to inform courts when such critical standards are updated.
The Innocence Project's criticism of expert testimony in Willingham's trial centered primarily on comments made by Deputy State Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez.
Under questioning by Navarro County District Attorney John Jackson, Vasquez told jurors he had found "puddle configurations" and "pour patterns" that indicated a flammable substance had been ignited on the floor.
Innocence Project investigators responded that such marks were caused by intense heat in the room creating a "flashover" — the instantaneous ignition of all combustible items in a room.
The only way to guarantee that an accelerant had been involved in a blaze, they wrote, is through laboratory testing for residue.
Vasquez told jurors that the fire originated in three locations — an indication that it had been deliberately set.
But the New York group's investigators countered that the three locations were, in fact, contiguous.
Vasquez said burn marks beneath a bed and under an aluminum plate in a door threshold were indicative of an arson.
"Each and every one of the 'indicators' listed by Mr. Vasquez means absolutely nothing, and, in fact, is expected in a context of a fire that has achieved full room involvement, as this fire clearly did," the investigators argued.
"Low burning, charred flooring, burning underneath items of furniture are common characteristics of a fully involved fire," they insisted. "They mean nothing with respect to the origin and cause of the fire."
The investigators also were critical of Vasquez's assertions to the jury that Willingham had lied.
"I talked to the occupant of this house and I let him talk and he told me a story of pure fabrication," Vasquez told jurors.
Fire, he testified, "tells the story. I am just the interpreter. I am looking at the fire, and I am interpreting the fire. That is what I know. That is what I do best. And the fire does not lie. It tells me the truth."
Vasquez died in 1994.
Jackson, now a Navarro County state district judge, was out of the office and could not be reached for comment.
Commission members delayed hiring an investigator to review the Willingham and Willis cases until their October meeting, but voted to ask the state fire marshal's office to respond to the Innocence Project's allegations.
Commissioners debated at length whether their investigator should be provided the critique penned by the Innocence Project's panel or simply advised of the complaint. No decision was reached.
The Legislature created the commission in 2005 in response to the Houston Police Crime lab scandal and irregularities with other forensic labs in the state.
At the 7th Annual March to Stop Executions in 2006, the family of Cameron Willingham delivered the letter below to Governor Rick Perry.
The Honorable Rick Perry
Governor of 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.
Stepmother of Cameron Todd Willingham who raised him from the age of 13 months
Trina Willingham Quinton
Niece of Cameron Todd Willingham
Nephew of Cameron Todd Willingham