Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for a fire that 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 last of those reports was ordered by the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission, which has been looking into his execution since 2008. But a September 2009 shake-up by Texas Gov. Rick Perry has kept that panel from reviewing the report, and the commission’s new chairman has ordered a review of its operating rules. Critics say that may kill the probe.
“They are attempting permanently to keep the investigation from continuing and moving on, and I do believe it’s because they don’t like the direction the evidence is leading,” Willingham’s cousin, Pat Cox, said Thursday. The Texas State Board will be looking into the case again today.
The Forensic Science Commission’s chairman is now John Bradley, an Austin-area district attorney with a reputation as a staunch supporter of the death penalty. Bradley has pledged to state lawmakers that the Willingham investigation “absolutely” will continue — but said the panel needs better rules to guide its work, and could not say when the issue would move forward.
Willingham’s case has been in the national spotlight since an investigation by the New Yorker discredited every piece of evidence used against him. Independent reviews in recent years by more than a half-dozen nationally renowned arson experts have found that there was no scientific basis for determining that the fire was anything more than a tragic accident.
On December 23, 1991, a fire broke out in one room of the Willingham home, in Texas. Cameron’s then-wife and mother of his children, was not home. Their three daughters were and lost their lives. Cameron 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. Cameron denied from the beginning that he had set the fire.
At the time of Cameron’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 room ignited, post flashover occurred when the blaze went from a fuel-controlled fire to a ventilation-controlled fire. As Cameron 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, his last hope was executive clemency by the Governor of Texas, but Chief Justice Rehnquist’s belief in clemency as an effective means to prevent miscarriages of justice turned out not to be justified. Texas Governor Perry received the 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 insufficient in cases where there is proof of actual innocence.
Sadly, it took this execution and the intense criticism that followed, to convince Governor Perry to replace members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. If only the defense had been granted one more hearing, the execution would not have taken place.