Political meddling and apathy in Willingham case

fire fighterPolitical meddling and apathy in Willingham case has me despondent. A Texas state board said last Friday that arson investigators in the Willingham case used flawed science but were not negligent in an investigation that led to a controversial 2004 execution. The panel also said that investigators did not commit misconduct.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, 13 years after a fire killed his three daughters. Prosecutors argued that Willingham deliberately set the 1991 blaze — but three reviews of the evidence by outside experts have found the fire should not have been ruled arson. The panel declared that investigators were using the science available to them at the time, even though it was flawed. The board said it would present its final report for a vote at a meeting in October 2010.

Despite the fact that the committee will look into the standard practises used in the 90s to see whether they were flawed and not up to date with then available technology, it is clear that this decision isn’t about doing what is right but all about what is easy. Easy for Gov. Perry, I mean.

The New Yorker’s article about the Willingham case is still the best there is to read what happened in what order. As I described in my post “In my humble opinion” on December 23, 1991, a fire broke out in one room of the Willingham home, in Texas. Willingham’s then-wife and mother of his children, was not home. Their three daughters were and lost their lives. Willingham himself was home, tried to save his children, but was forced back by the intensity of the fire. He escaped with minor burn injuries. The investigation that lead to his capital charge and conviction was based on analysis and procedures that were later discredited. Willingham denied from the beginning that he had set the fire.

At the time of Willingham’s clemency request, forensic arson analysis had made significant progress, and it was clear that numerous conclusions that were drawn at the time of the trial were incorrect. Among other things, modern forensic arson detection established mistakes centered on puddle configurations, pour patterns, burn trailer, and V-shaped burning marks.

At the time of the trial, V-shaped burn marks were taken as sole indication for the point of origin of the fire. However, modern arson forensics has established that V-shaped burn marks occur repeatedly during post flashover. Flashover occurs when radiant heat causes fire in a room to be a room on fire; it can happen within minutes without liquid accelerant. The then-held beliefs about flashover were wrong. After everything in the Willingham room ignited, post flashover occurred when the blaze went from a fuel-controlled fire to a ventilation-controlled fire. As Willingham opened a door, the fire followed the path of a new source of oxygen, leaving a trail to that door. This trail was mistakenly believed to be caused by a liquid accelerant.

After numerous unsuccessful appeals, Willingham’s last hope was executive clemency by the Governor of Texas, but then-Chief Justice Rehnquist’s belief in clemency as an effective means to prevent miscarriages of justice turned out not to be justified. Let’s make a side step here so I can explain.


In 1993, we were stunned by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Herrera v Collins. In this case, the US Supreme Court confirmed that “claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation occurring in the underlying state criminal proceeding.

Then-Chief Justice Rehnquist said that judges are not empowered to correct errors of fact even if the mistake could lead to the execution of an innocent man. Federal courts were only to intervene when state courts violated constitutional procedures.

According to Then-Chief Justice Rehnquist, “the proper procedure for making claims of actual innocence after the judicial process has been exhausted is by filing a request for executive clemency. Clemency is the historic remedy for preventing miscarriages of justice; it has provided a fail safe in our criminal justice system.” Texas Governor Perry received the Willingham defense report with the new scientific analysis, but denied clemency nevertheless.

A clemency decision does not require the level of scrutiny that a trial requires. In fact, in Texas, the members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Governor do not have to give any reasons for their recommendations and decision. This is exactly why the clemency process is so insufficient in cases where there is proof of actual innocence.

After the Willingham execution and the intense criticism that followed Governor Perry replaced members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The rest of the story is history.

The best spot to read up would be to go to Grits for Breakfast to read what Scott Henson, a former journalist turned opposition researcher/political consultant, public policy researcher and blogger, has to say about this.


  1. […] Adam Gray’s case we see the same flawed and overhauled technology that gave Cameron Todd Willingham a death sentence. Gray’s story has eerie similarities to Kenneth Richey’s case.  We […]

  2. […] 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the state of Texas for the 1991 fire that killed his three daughters: Amber (2) and […]

  3. […] killed in a hit-and-run. Michelle Martinko was murdered, Eric Beasley was killed, and Amber, Karmon, and Kameron Willingham died during the accidental fire that led to their father’s wrongful execution. Patty Vaughan […]