Records: Willingham's innocence in fire unclear
When protesters in Austin marched against the death penalty Saturday, they
had a new face to put on their posters Cameron Todd Willingham, a hulking
unemployed mechanic with a history of bad behavior.
Willingham's 17-year-old case has suddenly become a popular symbol for
those who wish to proclaim the brutality and unfairness of Texas capital
punishment. National television networks have covered it in the last few
weeks. The Sept. 7 issue of The New Yorker asked, in a story about
Willingham, "Did Texas execute an innocent man?"
Substantial questions have been raised about Willingham's guilt. But so
have serious questions about his claims of innocence.
Willingham was convicted in August 1992 of setting a Corsicana house fire
that had killed his three young children two days before Christmas. He was
executed in the Texas death chamber on Feb. 17, 2004.
Before and after his execution, several experts in fire science concluded
that, based on the physical evidence, there should have been no finding of
arson and thus no guilty verdict.
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nationally known
legal clinic devoted to exposing wrongful convictions, recently declared:
"There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been
A review of trial testimony and investigative records shows that reality
is far murkier that Willingham, while never wavering in his denial of
wrongdoing, did much that tended to incriminate him.
He consistently gave investigators a version of his actions inside the
burning house that makes little sense when paired against undisputed facts
and official photos. He gave relatives, friends and others contradictory
stories, according to their written statements.
After escaping the fire alone, Willingham behaved in ways that led several
witnesses to conclude that he didn't try hard to save his children and
cared more for his car than his daughters. He had, by several witness
accounts, a history of family violence.
Gov. Rick Perry, who ignored last-minute pleas to delay the convicted
man's execution, has said he has no doubt that Willingham was a
remorseless "monster" who deserved his fate.
Even if it turns out there's no scientific proof of arson, Perry said last
month, there would still be "clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence
that he was in fact the murderer of his children." But Perry has refused
to specify what evidence he means.
Some of the more recent fire experts' findings are less clear than
Willingham's supporters suggest.
The most recent expert to file a report, Craig Beyler, criticized the
original investigation and said it didn't prove arson, but acknowledged
that his report also didn't rule out arson. "That is correct," he said in
an interview about his report. "Some people are interpreting it more
The fire started in a small frame rent-house on the south side of
Corsicana, about an hour's drive southeast of Dallas, on the morning of
Dec. 23, 1991.
For Willingham, then 23 and out of work, it was just the latest stop in a
life of hardship and bad living.
His father rescued him at age 13 months from an orphanage where his mother
had left him. He spent his youth in Ardmore, Okla., dropping out of high
school in the 10th grade. At 17, he was arrested for burglary of an
automobile and being intoxicated on paint.
Between 1985 and 1989, he was arrested more than a dozen times in Ardmore
and Gainesville, Texas, for theft, assault, burglary and providing paint
to minors. He was jailed several times and spent at least 2 stints in
mandatory drug rehab.
He met Stacy Jean Kuykendall in 1988 while she was living in Gainesville.
They had a stormy, off-and-on relationship for the next 4 years that
produced three daughters. They married in October 1991.
Although Stacy later denied it, 2 friends said she told them that
Willingham beat her. Once while she was pregnant with her twins, a friend
testified, Stacy said Willingham attempted to induce a miscarriage by
hitting her in the stomach.
And now his house was on fire.
Willingham later told investigators he was awakened by the cries of his
2-year-old daughter, Amber. Stacy was Christmas shopping at a local
Salvation Army store.
He tried to find his children, Willingham said. The year-old twins, Karmen
and Kameron, were in a bedroom at the front of the house. But before he
could find any of them, Willingham said, he was driven from the house by
the smoke and heat.
An 11-year-old neighbor, Buffie Barbee, later testified that she found
Willingham standing in his front yard screaming, "My babies are inside
burning up! Help me!"
Buffie said she told him, "Go back inside and get the babies."
What did he do? she was asked. "He just stood there," she said.
He did, however, manage to move his car away from the burning house.
Steve Vandiver, wearing a fire-resistant suit and scuba-like breathing
gear, scrambled through the inferno in search of survivors. He made his
way to the 12-by-12-foot master bedroom where Willingham had been
"I looked under the bed, then felt across the bed," the firefighter
recalled in a written statement. "I felt something, then could barely make
out that it was a child.
"About that time the smoke cleared a little, and I could see the
2-year-old child laying face down in the bed with the sheet pulled up to
about her shoulders."
Vandiver carried Amber outside, where paramedics tried in vain to revive
her. Then he went back inside and saw the rest of the horror: the twins'
charred bodies on the floor of their bedroom.
Investigators didn't tell Willingham where they found any of the girls. In
a taped interview 8 days after the fire, on New Year's Eve 1991, they
asked him to chronicle his actions on the morning of the fire.
He gave this account: Stacy woke first and left home in her old Cadillac,
planning to pay utility bills, shop and then go to work at a bar called
Some Other Place. He went to the bedroom the three children shared, gave
the twins a bottle, left them on the floor, saw Amber in her bed, latched
the baby gate and went back to his room to sleep more.
"The next thing I remember is hearing, 'Daddy, Daddy,' " he said,
according to the interview transcript. "When I heard that last 'Daddy' and
woke up, you know, the house was already full of smoke."
He said he couldn't tell where the voice was coming from and cried out,
"Oh God, Amber, get out of the house," but heard nothing more from her. He
headed toward the kitchen, opened its door and noticed no major problem.
Why did he go that way first? "I don't know," he told investigators.
Next, he said, he went to the girls' smoky room, where fire was raging
near the ceiling, and stepped over the baby gate instead of opening it.
His hair caught fire; he put it out and stayed near the floor. He felt
where he had left the twins and "around most of the room," couldn't find
anyone and fled the intense heat out the front door.
Investigators used spray paint to mark the positions of the twins' bodies.
A photograph shows that one girl was largely under a crib, which stood
just inside the door. Part of her body was in the pathway into the room.
The other girl's body lay in the open about two feet away, in an area that
Willingham said he searched.
Willingham was charged with capital murder. At his trial, the star witness
against him was Deputy State Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, a fire
investigator from the old school.
Vasquez had 3 years of college but no degree. His credentials were nearly
30 years spent as a firefighter and fire marshal with 4 city, county and
state agencies. He had been a certified arson investigator for 15 of those
By August 1992, Vasquez estimated that he had investigated between 1,200
and 1,500 fires, most of which he found to be arson. He said he was not
aware that he had ever been proven wrong in any of his interpretations.
Vasquez oozed confidence from the witness stand. He also invoked mystical
terms, claiming his talent was knowing how to listen to what a fire was
"The fire tells a story. I am just the interpreter," he told the jury.
"And the fire does not lie. It tells me the truth."
The fire at the Willingham home told him that the defendant had poured a
liquid accelerant on the floor in 3 places and meant to kill his children,
He based his conclusions, he said, on more than 20 indicators, including a
pattern of burn marks that convinced him Willingham started the fire in
the twins' bedroom and then poured accelerant in the hallway and finally
near the front door.
The explanation Willingham provided in an interview about how he
discovered the fire and reacted to it was "a story of pure fabrication,"
"I never asked him any questions," the fire marshal said. "He just talked
and he talked, and all he did was lie."
Vasquez testified that the superficial nature of Willingham's burn
injuries and the minute amount of smoke in his lungs did not fit with the
story he told.
David Martin, Willingham's lead defense attorney, said in a recent
television interview that Vasquez was one of the most competent experts he
had encountered. "He was a straight shooter, and an honest guy," Martin
The defense did not present its own fire expert. Martin said an
investigator he hired before the trial agreed after viewing the fire scene
that the blaze appeared to have been intentionally set.
In an interview, Martin said he, too, was convinced of Willingham's guilt
because of the forensic evidence, his client's apparently uncaring
behavior after the fire and the inconsistencies in the statements he gave
"I think Willingham was a true sociopath," his former attorney said.
The eight-woman, four-man jury took about an hour to return a guilty
Vasquez, who died in 1994, "was very important" but not the only factor in
their decision, juror Dorenda Brokofsky said recently.
Jurors also were moved by the image of Willingham standing outside, near
the windows of the room in which his daughters were burning up. "He didn't
do anything," Brokofsky said.
The defense, she added, never suggested that the fire could have started
accidentally. Martin did propose that 2-year-old Amber might have knocked
over an oil lamp and started the fire while playing with a cigarette
lighter, but "none of us could see how that would work."
Jurors paid little attention to the testimony of a mentally ill career
criminal named Johnny Webb, Brokofsky said. Webb whom some have painted
as an influential witness claimed that Willingham, upon meeting him for
the first time in the Navarro County jail, confessed.
Brokofsky said she has been contacted by some news organizations that seem
to have decided that Willingham is innocent. "They're wanting me to say I
can't sleep at night. They want me to say I did wrong," she said. "I can't
The first scientific challenge to the arson finding did not surface until
shortly before Willingham's execution.
Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist from Austin, began researching
the fire evidence after being recruited in January 2004 by Patricia Ann
Cox, a Willingham cousin. Hurst finished his report four days before the
scheduled execution on Feb. 17.
His affidavit, filed in the trial court, said "most of the conclusions"
reached by fire marshal Vasquez "would be considered invalid in light of
current knowledge" in the fire investigation field. It said the finding of
multiple origins a persuasive sign of arson "was inappropriate even in
the context of the state of the art in 1991."
Hurst did not express an opinion about what caused the fire in the
affidavit. However, in a letter sent to Perry on Feb. 13, 2004, requesting
a 30-day reprieve for his client, Willingham's attorney stated "Dr.
Hurst's opinion is that the fire was not intentionally set."
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
and Perry also were presented with Hurst's report and declined to take
steps to stop or delay Willingham's execution.
Cox, a nurse who lives in Ardmore, said one of Perry's assistant general
counsels told her the day after the execution that the governor had
decided that granting Willingham a stay "would just be delaying the
Ten months after Willingham's death, the Chicago Tribune wrote a lengthy
article that questioned the arson finding. The story relied in part on the
opinions of Hurst and 3 additional fire scientists, each of whom called
the original investigation flawed.
The Innocence Project followed in 2006 with a report by one of the
Tribune's experts and four other scientists who found the Willingham fire
was not arson. The indicators relied upon by the original fire
investigators, the report concluded, were "routinely created by accidental
fires that progress beyond flashover." The reference was to a fireball
that can result from the simultaneous ignition of combustibles.
The original investigation cited "pour patterns" that pointed to the use
of liquid accelerants to start the fire. But the experts presented by the
Innocence Project said such patterns can be found in many fires that do
not involve accelerants.
Scheck pressed for an investigation of the case by the Texas Forensic
Science Commission, a newly created state panel that was empowered to
conduct inquiries into the activities of the state fire marshal's office.
The commission announced in November that it was hiring Beyler, a
Baltimore-based engineer who has a doctorate in engineering science from
Beyler delivered his report in August. In it, he said "a finding of arson
could not be sustained" based upon current standards of fire investigation
or those in place in 1992. He did not say what caused the fire, as
Corsicana Fire Chief Donald McMullan pointed out in a response.
In an interview Friday, Beyler said that he had no theory about what
actually happened and that the cause of the fire is undetermined.
His report did not try to explain Willingham's inconsistencies and adopted
at least one of his claims as fact: that Amber was in her own bed right
before the fire. He said he didn't realize until The News told him that
her body was found with the sheet pulled up near her shoulders, raising
the question whether she was tucked in her parents' bed all along.
Ultimately, he said, the conclusions he reached didn't depend on
Willingham's statements. Beyler said he focused on the science.
"I do recognize that he said many different things to many different
people," Beyler said of Willingham.
Last month, shortly before Beyler was to formally present his report to
the forensic commission, Perry removed some of its key members. Beyler's
presentation has been postponed indefinitely. The scientist accused Perry
of unethical behavior; the governor responded by accusing Beyler of having
a non-scientific agenda.
About 2 weeks before his execution, Willingham got a visit from ex-wife
It was her 1st prison trip, according to his stepmother, Eugenia
Willingham. It did not go well.
After long defending him, she had finally decided he was guilty. She
"gloated" about the prospect of having more children, Eugenia said, and
wouldn't hear of having his remains placed with those of their children.
Later, relatives say, Stacy told them about the meeting. She said
Willingham reminded her of a threat he'd made long ago that he would
"take away what's most precious of hers" if she tried to leave him.
And at the time of the 1991 fire, she had been planning to leave, said
Tracy Kuykendall, her twin brother. He and another brother interpreted the
reminder as an admission of guilt from Willingham.
But he did not confess, Stacy told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. She has
since declined interview requests.
On Feb. 17, 2004, in the last hours of his life, Willingham spent time
with the woman who had raised him, who still believed he was innocent. He
asked if she had any questions for him. She did not.
"He said he just had one thing to tell me," Eugenia said. "He did not go
in the babies' room."
He had lied about it, she said, because "he didn't want people to think he
didn't try to get those kids out. He said he couldn't go in there" it was
too late, too hot.
Stacy soon had her final encounter with her ex. This time he was strapped
to a gurney in the death chamber. She was watching as he spoke.
"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted
of a crime I did not commit," Willingham began. "I have been persecuted
for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to
dust I will return so the earth shall become my throne."
The New Yorker ended its Willingham story there.
In fact, though, Willingham kept talking, first bidding farewell to people
he identified only as "road dog" and "Gabby."
Then he raised one middle finger to the mother of his dead children and
said, "I hope you rot in hell, bitch." The cursing became more vile from
At 6:13 p.m., the lethal injection began flowing, and by 6:20 p.m. he was
dead. His last words were obscenities.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Death penalty case: Ex-wife says convicted killer confessed—-Texas' 2004
execution of Cameron Todd Willingham is controversial
The former wife of a man whose 2004 execution in Texas has become a source
of controversy has said he admitted setting the fire that killed their 3
daughters during a final prison meeting just weeks before he was put to
death, according to a Texas newspaper.
Stacy Kuykendall, the ex-wife of Cameron Todd Willingham, said in a
statement to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published Sunday that Willingham
told her he was upset by threats to divorce him after the new year. The
fire that killed the couple's 3 girls was Dec. 23, 1991.
Her last threat to divorce him, she said in a statement, occurred the
night before the fire.
"He said if I didn't have my girls I couldn't leave him and that I could
never have Amber or the twins with anyone else but him," according to the
statement from Kuykendall to the newspaper.
Willingham went to his death proclaiming his innocence.
And over the years, she has offered differing accounts.
A Tribune investigation in 2004 showed the indicators of arson that fire
officials used had been disproved by scientific advances and no longer
The 1st word of a confession came just before the execution, when
Kuykendall's brother signed an affidavit in which he said that she told
the family that, during the prison visit about two weeks before the
execution in 2004, Willingham made a confession.
But in a story in the local newspaper after the prison visit, she made no
mention of a confession. In fact, she told the paper Willingham stuck to
his story about his actions during the fire.
In a brief interview at her home in 2004, Kuykendall told the Tribune
Willingham never made such an admission. She confirmed that this year to a
reporter from the New Yorker magazine.
Her statement that he confessed — and that he said he set the fire
because she threatened to divorce him — also conflicts with other
accounts that she has provided.
8 days after the fire, in an interview with fire investigators and police,
Kuykendall said that she and Willingham had not argued for at least 2
weeks and she made no mention of a threat the night before the fire to
On that night, she told authorities, the couple went to a Kmart and picked
up family photographs that she intended to give as Christmas presents.
She failed to mention a threat of divorce in a second interview as well,
and under oath at the punishment phase of Willingham's trial said he never
would have hurt their 3 girls.
Kuykendall could not be reached for comment.
(source: Chicago Tribune)
The Execution of Cameron Willingham
"The only statement I want to make is that 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. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return,
so the Earth shall become my throne.
So spoke Cameron Todd Willingham just before the state of Texas killed
him. Governor Rick Perry's abrupt dissolution of the Texas Forensic
Science Commission on the eve of its long-awaited decision in the Cameron
Todd Willingham case was an effort to cover up a state-sanctioned murder;
days before Willingham's execution, Perry knew or should have known how
riddled with errors and mystical assumptions was the critical expert
testimony purporting to show that Willingham had set fire to his own
house, with his three young daughters inside. (see, "Trial by Fire," by
David Grann: New Yorker, September 7, 2009)
The botched investigation of Willingham's suspected arson recalls the sex
abuse scandals that began during the same period the early 1980s to the
early 1990s and whose legacy endures to this day. People continue to be
convicted of crimes that never happened, based on theories that experts
called scientific but which later research has shown to be nonsensical,
As in the sexual allegations, purported crime victims in fatal, accidental
home fires tend to be young children. The mere suspicion of "harm to
minors" awakens deep-seated fears that stifle common sense. Willingham's
prosecutors suggested he was a member of a Satanist cult. The evidence:
his heavy-metal rock posters. Day care prosecutions featured expert
assertions that the accused were sociopaths and Satanists.
Shoddy arson investigations are getting scrutiny now because Willingham
was executed. False convictions of child sexual abuse do not end in
capital punishment (though legislatures have tried). Instead, people who
are almost certainly innocent have been sentenced to centuries of time in
prison. Someincluding Fran and Danny Keller in Texas and James Toward and
Francisco Fuster in Floridaare still there almost a generation later. The
first accused daycare teacher, Bernard Baran, in Massachusetts, was
finally released after 22 years and exonerated 3 years later. Others are
released from prison, only to end up on sex offender registries. Junk
science didn't literally kill these people, but it has stolen their lives.
Their cases constitute a grave injustice, and desperately need review.
Where there is life, however, there is always hope. Nancy Smith, a school
teacher, and Joseph Allen, a Head Start bus driver, were recently released
from Ohio prisons after 14 years in prison for committing phantom crimes
against 5-year-olds. And John Stoll convicted of allowing people he
barely knew to sodomize his 6-year-old son, and himself sodomizing young
children he had just met and then sending them on home after school was
released after 20 years in state prison. He was immortalized in a movie
narrated by Sean Penn ("Witchhunt"), and recently settled a civil rights
case against Kern County, California, for 5.5 million dollars. But for
Cameron Willingham, there is no revenge, no redemption, no hope at all.
Michael Snedeker is a defense attorney, co-author with Debbie Nathan of
Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American
Witchhunt, and President of NCRJ.org, an innocence campaign for people
wrongly accused or convicted of crimes against children—-CounterPunch)
28-year-old convicted in 2000 killing set to die
20 minutes after 22-year-old Carlos Garza was gunned down at his San
Antonio apartment, a security camera at a pawn shop showed someone selling
2 gold necklaces that belong to him.
The man in the videotape, identified as Reginald Blanton, was arrested
four days later and eventually was sentenced to die for the April 2000
killing. Blanton, 28, was scheduled to die by lethal injection Tuesday
Blanton's lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution,
arguing that black people may have been improperly excluded from the jury
in their client's 2001 trial. Attorney John Carroll said trial prosecutors
requested a reorganization of the jury pool, known as a shuffle, in what
may have been a racially discriminatory attempt to keep blacks from
serving on the jury.
"There were a number of African-American panel members who were up at the
front, they wound up at the back," Carroll said. "It's kind of an evolving
area of the law because initially it just wasn't something that was
Other courts have rejected similar requests, but those appeals were
resolved before courts decided to take another look at the issue, Carroll
Frank Dickson Jr., one of the trial prosecutors and now in private
practice, said there was nothing improper about the shuffle.
"Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't," he said. "Either side can ask.
It's just provided for."
Told that the shuffle had become an appeals issue, Dickson replied: "I
wouldn't agree with that… I really don't think there was anything
controversial about his case at all."
Blanton's twin brother, Robert Blanton, told police that his brother broke
into Garza's apartment, believing no one was home, and shot Garza when he
Prosecutors said Blanton, who was 18 at the time and knew Garza, took some
jewelry and left, then returned a few minutes later to take about $100 in
cash. The necklaces he pawned netted him $79.
A neighbor called police after seeing the broken door and spotting Garza
lying on the floor. Garza died later at a hospital.
A girlfriend of Robert Blanton tipped police about the shooting. Robert
Blanton was questioned and gave a statement implicating his brother. When
Reginald Blanton was arrested, prosecutors said he was wearing a ring and
bracelet that belonged to Garza.
Robert Blanton wasn't charged because authorities couldn't show he was
involved in the break-in or shooting. He is serving a two-year prison term
for an unrelated drug conviction.
At his trial, Reginald Blanton's lawyers argued that he shouldn't be
sentenced to die, saying he had a horrible childhood with little
supervision, that he could have been harmed as a fetus because his mother
was pushed down the stairs.
Witnesses testified that Blanton smoked marijuana at age 11 and that he
joined gangs in San Antonio to seek protection his family didn't provide.
On death row, Blanton's committed several disciplinary infractions,
including possession of a sharpened steel shank. He also was among death
row inmates caught last year with illegal cell phones.
Blanton, who called his execution "much more than injustice, much more
than a railroading," contended he was innocent of Garza's death, although
no such claims were raised in appeals as his execution date approached.
"Reg was kind of a cocky guy," Dickson said. "I don't think he thought he
was going to get convicted."
If someone he prosecuted was sentenced to die, "I would want to be 100
percent certain that person was guilty," Dickson added. "And I can tell
you that's the way I feel about Reginald Blanton."
Blanton would be the 19th inmate executed in Texas this year. At least 6
more lethal injections are scheduled before the end of the year, including
Khristian Oliver, 32, set to die next week for the beating death of a
Nagodoches County man during a burglary in 1998.
(source: Associated Press)
Hoping for clemency on Texas' death row
A Texas death row prisoner says he is hoping to avoid execution this week
but he doubts Gov. Rick Perry will grant him clemency.
Reginald Blanton, 28, is scheduled to die by lethal injection Tuesday for
the robbery and murder of Carlos Garza, said he does not believe his
execution will be stayed, the San Antonio Express-News said Sunday.
In April 2000, Blanton kicked in Garza's apartment door and shot him in
the head when Garza refused to give Blanton his jewelry. Blanton filed a
petition for clemency Oct. 8.
Perry has only once delayed an execution in 9 years in office, during
which Texas has executed 200 death row inmates. Blanton's would be the
19th in the state this year, the newspaper reported.
Blanton maintains he is innocent and has used the media to try to garner
public sympathy. He depicts himself on his MySpace and Facebook pages as a
human rights activist, wrongfully-convicted.
"I want to watch him breathe his last breath," Irene Garza, the victim's
mother told the newspaper.
(source: United Press International)