The undeniable facts of the Cameron Todd Willingham case are these:
• On Dec. 23, 1991, 2-year-old Amber Louise Kuykendall, and 1-year-old twins Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham died in a mid-morning house fire at 1213 W. 11th Ave. in Corsicana.
• Willingham, 23, the children’s father, and the only adult home at the time of the fire, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death on Aug. 21, 1992.
• After five appeals and 12 years on death row, he was put to death by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.
Everything else is controversial.
Carrying the torch
To people opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances, the holy grail is an innocent man who was executed, preferably in Texas, home of the nation’s busiest death row. Some argue Todd Willingham is that innocent man.
The latest argument for Willingham’s innocence comes from a report by Craig Beyler, of Hughes Associates in Baltimore, Md., and submitted Aug. 17 to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a panel formed in 2005 to deal with forensic errors.
Beyler was contracted to review the case following a complaint by the Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project is best known for using DNA analysis to exonerate wrongly convicted men.
The report claims the Texas investigators didn’t understand fire science, and didn’t use modern methods in the Willingham case. Because one of the investigators was with the
Texas fire marshal’s office, the marshal’s office will have a chance to respond to Beyler’s findings, and the commission should deliver a verdict next spring.
This week, the New Yorker published an article by David Grann which condemns the science and the system which sent a seemingly innocent man to his death. Part of the article is based on Willingham’s relationship with a woman who visited him on death row, and became an amateur sleuth on his behalf. Previous articles questioning the Willingham verdict have also appeared in the Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Tribune.
Leaders of the Innocence Project say this is proof of a failed death-penalty system.
“There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, in a release. “The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again.
“As long as our system of justice makes mistakes — including the ultimate mistake — we cannot continue executing people,” Scheck stated.
In Corsicana, the attempts to make Todd Willingham into a martyr aren’t well-received.
“He’s not a poster child for anybody,” said Sgt. Jimmie Hensley of the Corsicana Police Department.
Doug Fogg, a Corsicana firefighter for 31 years, was the first responder to arrive at 1213 W. 11th Ave. in Corsicana that Monday morning. He conducted the local arson investigation.
Fogg calls Beyler an “armchair quarterback” and riles at the accusation that Corsicana and state detectives used nothing more than folklore to come to their conclusions.
“A lot of this stuff (in Beyler’s report) is misspoken or misinterpreted,” Fogg said.
The report accuses state arson investigator Manuel Vasquez, now deceased, of not securing the scene, of missing or mishandling crucial evidence that might have exonerated Willingham, and not using scientific fire analysis.
Willingham had a lot of excuses for the fire, Fogg recalled, including that a stranger entered the house and set the fire, that the 2-year-old started it, that a ceiling fan or squirrels in the attic caused an electrical short, or the gas space heaters in the children’s bedroom sparked it.
The investigators searched for electrical shorts, but found none; the gas-powered space heaters were off because the family’s gas supply had been cut off at the meter; and “we didn’t find a ceiling fan. Willingham said there was one, but we didn’t find any signs of one,” Fogg said.
The other explanations just didn’t add up, Fogg said, adding: “We eliminated all accidental causes.”
Evidence of accelerants was found, but Willingham had an excuse for that, too. Willingham told investigators he poured cologne on the children’s floor “because the babies liked the smell,” he blamed a kerosene lamp for any accelerant in the hallway, and said spilled charcoal-lighter fluid happened while he was grilling, Fogg recalled.
Fogg agreed that there was a damaged bottle of charcoal lighter fluid on the other end of the porch away from the door, but the grill was in the side yard not on the porch when firefighters arrived. Fogg remembered four empty bottles of charcoal lighter were found just outside the front door.
Beyler acknowledges that one sample did have accelerant in it, but said it was unidentified, a claim Fogg disputes.
Local investigators didn’t leave the house until midnight, spending over 12 hours sifting through the debris by hand, taking videotape and more than 80 photographs of the scene, cutting up flooring for the lab, bagging and dating each sample and recording where it came from in the house, Fogg said. Samples were contaminated by melted plastic toys, fire-damaged carpet and floor tiles, but it wasn’t because of investigator’s incompetence, Fogg said.
Beyler theorized it was a flashover, and said investigators didn’t see the difference between the intense heat of a flashover and an accelerant-driven fire. Fogg laughed at the notion.
If it had been a flashover, it would have taken out the thin layer of sheetrock on the walls, he argued.
“That house was box construction,” Fogg said. “The only sheetrock that came down was what was hit with water. The paper backing wasn’t even scorched.”
As well, the fire damage was worse at the floor level than at the ceilings, which is the opposite of typical fire, Fogg said.
“(Beyler) thought we were total idiots,” Fogg said.
Beyond the fire
Sgt. Jimmie Hensley of the Corsicana Police Department was the lead investigator on the Willingham murder case back in 1992.
For Hensley, the most damning evidence came from Willingham, who told officers that 2-year-old Amber woke him up. Firefighters later found her in his bed, with burns on the soles of her feet. Yet, Willingham didn’t take the girl with him when he fled, nor did he receive burns walking down that same hallway, Hensley pointed out.
Willingham was taken to the hospital where doctors did a blood-gas analysis on him, a standard test for someone who’s been inside a burning house.
“He had no more (carbon monoxide) than somebody who had just smoked a cigarette,” Hensley said.
Hensley has since become a certified arson investigator. In hindsight, he insists they took the right steps with the evidence in the Willingham case.
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” he said.
Hensley also dismisses Beyler’s report, pointing out that Beyler didn’t talk to the investigators, and reading the testimony can’t replace first-person observations.
“You can find expert witnesses everywhere, and if you pay them enough they’ll testify to anything,” Hensley said. “They’re to be bought.”
Willingham was tried for murder, not arson, and the guilty verdict was based on the whole picture, not just part of it, he said.
“You can’t just look at a little part. Look at the whole picture, and that’s what the jury did,”
Hensley said. “If a 2-year-old wakes you up and there’s smoke and fire everywhere, aren’t you going to at least get that one out? It couldn’t possibly have happened the way (Willingham) said.”
Willingham’s behavior afterwards did not help his case. Todd Morris was the first police officer on the scene and he found Willingham trying to push his car away from the house to save it from the fire, while his children were inside burning up, Hensley said.
Dr. Grady Shaw and his team spent an hour at the emergency room trying to resuscitate
Amber while next door Willingham complained about his own suffering, Shaw said.
“I remember this case very clearly,” Shaw said. “She was in Trauma Room 1, and her father was placed in Trauma Room 2, and only a curtain separated those. He was whining and complaining and crying out for a nurse to help him because of the pain from his extremely minor burns while we were trying to resuscitate this child.”
Willingham’s first-degree burns on the backs of his hands and on the back of his neck were the kind that might come from accidentally touching an oven rack, or having a small ember pop up from a campfire, Shaw said.
“He was not hurting that bad from these minor burns,” Shaw said. “It was clearly audible what was going on next door, but to hear him doing all that complaining and asking for attention when everybody was trying to save the little girl’s life was grossly inappropriate.”
Friends of the family testified that Willingham had beaten his wife in an attempt to abort the pregnancy of the twins, and many people assumed the murder of the children was more of the same, said John Jackson, former district judge and the lead prosecutor of the Willingham case.
“We really just believed the children inhibited his lifestyle,” Jackson said.
Hensley came away deeply disturbed by the case, and he’s angry that anti-death penalty proponents ignore the children’s deaths in trying to make Willingham into a martyr.
“In my opinion, justice was served,” Hensley said. “And it’s a shame he couldn’t have died three times, one for each of the little girls.”
Alan Bristol, who helped prosecute the case for the district attorney’s office, said Willingham was “one of the most evil people I’ve ever come in contact with in my life.”
“The guy was a sociopath,” he said. Willingham refused a polygraph, tortured and killed animals as a child, abused his wife repeatedly, thought more about losing his car than his children, and clearly lied about what happened in the deadly fire, Bristol said.
“None of the stories he told us panned out,” Bristol said. “He tried to make himself out to be a big hero, that he tried to go in and save the children, but there was no smoke in his lungs and he had only minor injuries.”
Bristol said the science for investigating fires may have changed over the last two decades, but the accelerant was there, and that evidence remains valid.
“I don’t have any doubt he did it, or was guilty,” Bristol said. “I think he would have been convicted whether we had the arson evidence or not.”
Willingham appealed his case, but the verdict was upheld. In the end, he asked for clemency that never materialized.
“The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit,” Willingham said in his final moments. “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”
The article in the New Yorker quoted Willingham’s protest of innocence as his final words, but Loyd Cook of the Daily Sun was one of three media witnesses at the execution.
Willingham’s actual final words were a venom-filled curse at his ex-wife as he attempted an obscene gesture, Cook reported.
“I hope you rot in hell, b—,” Willingham said before dying.
Stacy Kuykendall, who still lives in Navarro County, said she doesn’t talk about the case anymore. However, she did talk to Cook shortly before Willingham’s execution.
She refuted her ex-husband’s attempts to blame Amber, and came to her own conclusions that he killed their daughters. Kuykendall divorced Willingham while he was in prison, and married again. She did not have more children.
“Maybe some of the fear of him will leave me, but I’ll never get over what he did to my kids,” she said in 2004.
From his seat at the defense table, attorney David Martin’s job was to fight tooth and nail for Willingham. Once it was over, though, Martin became convinced his client was guilty. He dismisses the Beyler report as propaganda from anti-death penalty supporters.
“The Innocence Project is an absolute farce,” Martin said. “It’s a bunch of hype, in my opinion.”
The defense team couldn’t locate an arson expert back then willing to say the house fire was accidental.
“We never could find anybody that contradicted Vasquez,” Martin said.
As for motive, Martin agreed with investigators about Willingham’s character.