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Transcript of Willingham
He wrote to his parents, “Prison is a rough place, and with a case like mine they never give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Willingham wrote, “This is a hard place, and it makes a person hard inside. I told myself that was one thing I did not want and that was for this place to make me bitter, but it is hard. They have executed at least one person every month I have been here. It is senseless and brutal…you see, we are not living in here, we are only EXISTING.”
The Morning of the Fire On the morning of December 23, 1991, Buffie Barbee [an 11 year old neighbor girl] was playing in her backyard and smelled smoke. She alarmed her mother and the two rushed down the street and saw a smoldering house with a soot covered Cameron Todd Willingham frantic. He was screaming and emotional because his children, two year old Amber and one year old twin girls Karmon and Kameron, were trapped inside. He instructed the Barbees to call the fire department and then attempted to save his children. He found a stick and broke the window in the children’s bedroom. Fire raged through the shattered window. He then went to another window and tried again. He got the same result. He retreated back and knelt in the yard. A neighbor later told police that he cried out for his children and then felt silent as if he had “blocked the fire out of his mind.”
Within minutes of returning to the scene, Diane Barbee reported that the heat was radiating from the house. Moments later the five windows in the children’s bedroom “blew out” and flames exploded out of the room. Within minutes, the first fireman had arrived and Willingham hysterically approached them to explain that his children were trapped.
A few minutes later more firemen arrived and went into the building. One fireman went through the front door and was meet by flames and smoke. Heading down the main corridor, he reached the kitchen and saw the refrigerator blocking the back door.
The Fire Willingham reaction to the scene and aftermath Willingham became more hysterical and explained that his wife had left earlier that morning and he was awoken from a nap by the screams of his daughters, “Daddy! Daddy!” He explained, “My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,” adding “I couldn’t get my babies out.”
While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the fire and was cradling Amber. She was given C.P.R. and Willingham rushed by her side. After seeing her he tried to push his way through to the babies’ room. Police Chaplain George Monaghan later told police, “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection…I received a black eye.” One of the first fireman on scene told investigators that at an earlier point, he too had held Willingham back. “ Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to go into the house” he said.
Willingham was taken to the hospital and told that all three children had died of smoke inhalation. The two babies were found badly burned on the floor of the children’s room. But Amber was found in the master bedroom.
Willingham  was unemployed and his wife  worked in her brother’s bar and had almost no money. The community took up a collection to bury the children.
As Gilbert tracked down several sources, many people in law enforcement were not convinced that he was guilty. Bebe Bridges, a judge who had sent him to jail, said that she could not imagine him killing his children. Willingham even tracked down Polly Goodin, his former probation officer, at her office and showed her photographs of Stacy and his kids. During the penalty phase, Stacy was questioned intensely about his tattoo, which was a skull and a snake, and a poster of Iron Maiden, which was used to demonize him. The prosecution used two medical experts to confirm their theory. One was Tim Gregory, a psychologist, who had not published any research in the field of sociopathic behavior and had previously gone goose hunting with Assistant District Attorney, John Jackson. In order to portray Willingham as a monster, Gregory said,
Elizabeth Gilbert, who was a volunteer for an organization that opposed the death penalty, reviewed Willingham’s case. She found many contradictions in the eyewitness accounts. Diane Barbee had reported that Willingham never tried to get back in the house, but she had been absent for some time while calling the Fire Department. Her daughter Buffie had reported seeing Willingham on the porch breaking a window to get to his children. In Diane’s statement to authorities, she depicted Willingham as “hysterical,” and described the front of the house exploding.
The other was James P. Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist, who was nicknamed Dr. Death and three years after Willingham’s trial was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for violating ethics. Another person Gilbert interviewed was a jailhouse informant Johnny Webb who was facing robbery and forgery charges, had testified that Willingham revealed that he purposely set the fire. But jailhouse informants generally seek reduced time or special privileges. But during the trial, another inmate planned to testify that he had overheard Webb saying to another inmate that he was hoping to get a reduced sentence. Ernest Ray Willis had a case very similar to Willingham’s:
•In 1987, he had been convicted of setting a fire which killed two women.
•Willis had been sleeping and woke to a house full of smoke. He tried to wake one of the women but the flames and smoke drove him back and he ran out the front door.
•He moved his car out of the yard.
•Apparently didn’t show any emotion
•Authorities wondered how Willis could have escaped without burning his feet.
•Fire investigators found pour patters, puddle configurations, and other sign of arson.
•Authorities could discern no motive for the crime, but concluded Willis had no previous record and was a sociopath (a demon).
* THE ONLY DIFFERENCE WAS WILLIS WAS RELEASED
FROM DEATH ROW AFTER THE FINDINGS OF
Earnest Ray Willis' Similar Crime Investigators conducted an experiment to re-create the fire of Lime Street. They learned that when a fire passes the point of flashover-- the point at which a fire in a room turns into a room on fire-- the path of fire depends on the ventilation. Therefore, a fire can look like it was fueled by an accelerant when in reality it was not. This was John Lentini’s epiphany, providing evidence that the Willingham fire may not have been fueled by an accelerant.
Hurst examined a floor plan of Willingham’s house, noting that since the windows had blown out, the odd patterns and burn trailers were caused by the ventilation. There was a positive test for mineral spirits by the front door, which Hurst determined to have been caused by lighter fluid from a charcoal grill that had been present by the door. When firefighters sprayed the house with water, they distributed the fluid. While “authorities were aware of the grill...[they] did not see its relevance”. The evidence led Hurst to conclude that there is little doubt that it was an accidental fire.
Dr.Hurst Investigates Willingham as a Monster?
Hurst saw a direct parallel between the Willingham and Willis cases; he even felt like he was looking at the same evidence. An application for clemency had arisen as well as Hurst’s report. However, the petition was denied by a unanimous vote. The voters did not meet in person; instead, votes were cast by fax-- called “death by fax”. Rick Perry ignored the report, even using his political power to remove three people from the group 48 hours before a review, forcing it to be cancelled. Perry has been quoted as saying to the press, “ Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren't covering,”
Willingham’s wife no longer believed in her husband’s innocence, but she was unaware of Hurst’s report and was basing her opinion on old evidence invented by Vasquez & Fogg.
Following Willingham’s death, questions about the scientific evidence in the case began to surface. Three fire experts, including John Lentini were asked to examine the original investigation; they agreed with Hurst’s report. Craig Beyler, a noted fire scientist concluded that the initial investigators of the fire had no scientific basis for concluding that the fire was arson, confirming that Texas had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person”. Until the end, Willingham maintained his innocence. He said “I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit”
People are trying to raise awareness regarding the execution of Willingham. A website called camerontoddwillingham.com/ features a petition as well as a link providing information on contacting Rick Perry directly. Individuals can also donate to help bring further attention to this case.
Aftermath A summary of David Grann's New Yorker Article Gilbert's Review of the Case Tracking Down Sources Demonization - Posters and Tattoos Jailhouse informant - False Testimony Our Interview with Dr. Hurst The Best Quotes from Dr. Hurst “Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.” "[In Death Penalty cases] Rarely do you determine 100% innocence because it's a battle between Politics & Science. The Willingham case was as close as you could get."
"The state fire marshall is a gubernatorial appointment." Walter Reaves Although Willingham received a new court-appointed attorney, Walter Reaves, after filing a claim of inadequate legal representation, Willingham’s “state writ of habeus corpus” was denied on Halloween of 1997 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (known for upholding convictions even when “overwhelming exculpatory evidence” came to light). Willingham then filed another writ, in federal court this time, and was granted a temporary stay. "One more chance,
one more strike,
another bullet dodged,
another date escaped" Request Denied In 2002, a federal district court of appeals denied Willingham's writ without even holding a hearing. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but, in December, 2003, was informed that they had declined to review the case. He soon thereafter recieved a court order announcing that he was set to be executed on the evening of February 17, 2004. Willingham's only chance now was to be granted clemency by Gov. Rick Perry...
Dr. Gerald Hurst One day in late January, 2004, Dr. Hurst recieved a file describing all of the evidence of arson compiled in the Willingham case. Hurst, a renowned scientist and arson investigator, agreed to look at the case pro bono. By this time, Hurst had been working on criminal arson cases for over a decade (a decision he made after being exposed to the methods of local and state investigators and being "appalled" by what he saw). Many arson investigators, it turns out, have only a high school education. In most states, a 40-hour course and a written exam must be passed in order to be "qualified" as an investigator. In our group's interview with Dr. Hurst, he stated that fire investigation (especially back then) was largely based on "old wives' tales" and that the scientific method was mostly ignored. Hurst told us that it took him about ten minutes to see that
the evidence used to convict Willingham was "entirely bogus"
and that the fire in question was, with no doubt in his mind,
an accidental blaze. Hurst, Science, and Setting the Record Straight Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshall, claimed that the fire burned "fast and hot" because of a liquid accelerant. This is nonsense, as Hurst and other leading scientists have proved; wood fires and gasoline fires burn at essentially the same temperature. Hurst and others have also disproved the theory that the front door's aluminum threshold melted because of the presence of a liquid accelerant. A natural wood fire can reach temperatures of up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit; the melting point for aluminum alloys is around 1000-1200 degrees Fahrenheit "Crazed-Glass" Theory In November, 1991(only a month before the Willingham fire), fire investigators inspected 50 houses in Oakland, CA, that had been ravaged by wild brushfires in the area. Investigators had discovered 'crazed glass' in a dozen homes on the outskirts of the blazes (where firefighters had initially shot their streams of water in an attempt to combat the blazes); in a published study, investigators theorized and concluded that the patterned cracks in the glass occured because of rapid cooling (from the water streams) rather than sudden heating. Vasquez claimed that the remarkable cracked patterns in the windows of the house occured because of a fire fueled by liquid accelerants. This time, Hurst didn't need to do any work to prove this theory wrong; it had been done for him before the Willingham fire ever occured. Hurst had seem the same results in numerous laboratory experiments. Hurst now had to confront the most incriminating evidence laid against Willingham: "The burn trailer, the pour patterns and puddle configurations, the v-shape and other burn marks indicating that the fire had multiple sources of origin, the burning beneath the children's bed... and the positive test for mineral spirits by the front door." More bogus evidence? As he read through the files,
Hurst recalled the legendary Lime Street Fire of 1990... He retold the story of the fire. Willingham heard his daughter Amber scream, put on pants, then ran to his daughters room. As he patted out his hair, which caught on fire, he dug around for his children, unable to bear the heat any longer he exited the house and unsuccessfully tried to reenter. When questioned he believed the origin of the fire was the girls room by something electrical.
Hurst claimed that the house had open wires leading to outlets, running down the walls which may have started the fire.
Willingham could find no one who would do such a “cold blooded” thing to his children or family.
The Story When asked whether he had put shoes before he fled the house he said no. From this answer Vasquez became sure that Willingham killed his children because with low burns from a liquid accelerant Willingham would not have been able to run out of the house unscathed.
There was no clear intent for committing the crime. Without clear intent the prosecution began to demonize Willingham claiming his monstrous ways were sue to his past life of drinking and partying. And that his children were an “impediment to his lifestyle.”
Willingham was arrested and given a lawyer assigned by the state, Mr. David Martin, a so called jack of all trades.
The Accusation Extra Evidence/ Trial Johnny Webb a fellow prison inmate, claimed Willingham professed the crime to him alone in the their cell, killing his children by use of lighter fluid. Willingham’s lawyers believed his fate was sealed and participated in his guilty party parade. When asked to take a plea bargain in order to escape the death sentence Willingham refused.
Hurst claims that innocent people are always outraged when being considered guilty.
Willingham trial begins and the prosecution claims to have over 20 indicators of arson. When asked Willingham’s intent of lighting the fire, Vasquez claimed “to kill the little girls.” The prosecution's closing arguments contained a verse form the Gospel of Matthew encompassing the eye for an eye principle in the bible: "Whomever shall harm one of my children, it's better for a millstone to be hung around his neck and for him to be cast in the sea."
Post Conviction Elizabeth Gilbert, a forty-seven year old teacher, begins to write Willingham and begins to visit him.
His wife Stacy campaigns for Willingham’s release by writing to Anne Richard, the governor of Texas, claiming she “ know[s] him in ways that no one else does.” But when she has no hope left, she files for divorce a year later.
Questioning a Fail-safe System? The fear that an innocent person might be executed has long haunted jurors,
lawyers, and judges.
Questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe.
Since 1976, more than a 130 people on death row have been exonerated. In 2000, after 13 people on death row in Illinois were exonerated,
George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the
death penalty. thouse he had been a longtime advocate of capital
punishment, he declared that he could no longer support a system
that has "come so close to the ultimate nightmare - the
state's taking of innocent life." Life in Prison (cont.) Despite hsi efforts to occupy his thoughts, he wrote in his diary that his mind "deteriorate each passing day." He stopped working out and gained weight.
He began to question his faith: "No God who cared about his creation would abandon the innocent." He also seemed not to care if another inmate attacked him, "A person
who is already dead inside does not fear death," he wrote. "It took me 10 minutes to read the 8 page fire report. I started by highlighting all of the mistakes and by the third page I gave up. I had all yellow pages." “The state gets a tax from the insurance companies. They are the reason the fire marshal position was created. Insurance companies don't pay out when arson occurs. This creates more revenue and tax. The marshal's office 'finds' more arson and the state benefits." "You only get as much Justice as you can afford." "The Ernest Ray Willis case was identical to Willingham's. The only difference was, Willis got lucky and had a patent lawyer from New York who believed him and spent $2 million dollars on his case. This bought Willis time and experts. Once a new district attorney was brought in, the case was reviewed and Willis was exonerated after 14 years on the row. He is now a truck driver in west Texas." "The cases of Willingham and Willis expose the problem with the death penalty. It's a roulette wheel. They had the same case but had different outcomes." Fogg and Vasquez * Douglas Fogg Eager to determine the cause of the fire, investigators asked Willingham for his permission to search the house. Willingham granted them permission by saying, “I know we might not ever know all the answers, but I’d just like to know why my babies were taken from me.” Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief, Douglas Fogg, did an initial inspection of the fire. Although he only had a high school education and military service, He had experience working with fire [“the beast”] for nearly 20 years. He was quoted as saying, “You learn that fire talks to you.”
He was accompanied on the case by Manuel Vasquez, a state deputy fire marshal, who has since died. Before the Willingham case, Vasquez had worked more than 1200 fire cases. He was quoted saying, “Fire does not destroy evidence-it creates it…The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” He was asked under oath about the certainty of his work and whether or not he was ever wrong and he testified that, “If I have, sir, I don’t know…It’s never been pointed out.”
Fire Investigation Both Fogg and Vasquez visited the Willinghams’ residence four days after the fire. Vasquez later testified that they moved from the least to most burned areas. “It is a systematic method,” he testified. Adding, “I’m just collecting information…I have not made any determination. I don’t have any preconceived idea.”
They started on the perimeter of the house and entered the house through the back door. They noticed that the space to walk in was tight because the door was partially blocked by the refrigerator. They smelled burned rubber and wires and they noticed a damp ash covering their boots and the ground. In the kitchen they discovered only smoke and heat damage-a sign that the fire originated somewhere else.
In the utility room he noticed pictures of skulls and the “Grim Reaper.” He went into the master bedroom where Amber’s body was found but discovered that it too only had heat and smoke damage. He and Fogg walked down the hall through debris and exposed wiring. They removed some of the mess and discovered deep charring. This indicated that the fire burned extremely low instead of normal fire that burn upward. This caused peculiar char patterns on the floor, shaped like puddles.
Science? Or Speculation? Fire Conclusion Some images in this presentation are not related to the Willingham case and are used for illustrative purposes only. Some images being used in this presentation are copy written and are being used under the Fair Use Clause. Vasquez followed the “burn trailer” to the children’s bedroom. The light from the windows exposed the “pour patterns” also known as “puddle configurations”, on the floor. He noticed the floor was charred all the way down to the plywood and the springs in the children’s bed became white. All a sign that heat was radiating below them at a higher rate than the ceiling. Given that heat rises, this was not “normal” in Vasquez’s eyes. Fogg also found a piece of “crazed glass,” which forensic books describe as a sign the fire burned “hot and fast,” meaning that a liquid accelerant was present. They also found soot patterns in the shape of a “V,” which show where the fire was started. Given that they found at least three starting points, the fire would have to have been, “intentionally set by human hands.” The investigators came to a clear conclusion that someone had poured a liquid accelerant all over the children’s bedroom, including under their beds, and then poured more along the bordering hallway and out the front door. They concluded that this was a “fire barrier” that prevented anyone from escaping the burning house. The prosecutor later argued that the fridge was also moved to block the rear exit causing the house to become a “death trap.”
Finally, they collected samples from the threshold of the front door and sent them to the lab. The lab reported the presence of “mineral spirits,” which is commonly found in charcoal lighter fluid. The fire was declared a triple homicide. As the fire’s only survivor, Cameron Todd Willingham was the prime suspect.
Organizations or People to Contact If you are concerned about the Willingham case or the Death Penalty, contact the following: Texas Senator Kirk Watson - http://www.kirkwatson.com/contact/
Texas Board of Criminal Justice - http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/directory/directory.htm#E-mail
The Innocence Project - http://www.innocenceproject.org/about/Contact-Us.php
ACLU - http://www.aclu.org/contact-us
Amnesty International - http://www.amnesty.org/en/contact/659
OR Contact your local Legislative Representative