Update: Texas Injustice: The Execution of Cameron Todd Willingham

Late last year we examined the possible flawed science that was the basis of conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, a father of three who was alone with his children when his home mysteriously caught fire and burned all three of his children to death.  Willingham exited the home without his children.

You can read the first three pieces in this series here, here, and here.

Using science available at the time to an undertrained Fire Marshall, it was determined that the fire was arson and Willingham was sentenced to death.  He was executed in February of 2004.

Prior to his execution, it was brought to Governor Perry’s attention that the science may have been flawed and it was recommended he stay the execution as they determine whether or not a new trial based on better science be held.  From our earlier piece on the events that unfolded at this point: 

According to the Houston Chronicle, three days later – on the day of the scheduled execution, Governor Rick Perry received, by fax, the entire report at 4:52pm. At a few minutes after 5:00, the Governor sent word that he would not intervene. The death of Cameron Todd Willingham occurred that evening, at 6:20 p.m.

This is what it all comes down to. Rick Perry had the 64-page report, the evidence, in his hand, that seriously called into question the validity of the investigation that led to the conviction of Todd Willingham. Apparently, it took him 8 minutes to read all 64 pages, decide that the experts who had refuted the voo-doo fire investigation knew less than he, and get word to the executioner that it was A-OK to proceed with this death sentence.

Later, the Washington Examiner reported that the Governor dismantled the commission that was going to review the evidence in this case to determine whether or not the science was bad and whether the state acted hastily in executing this man in light of the evidence given to the jury at the original trial. 

Perry, who has said the execution was appropriate, replaced the head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and two of its eight other board members. The upheaval on the commission came just 48 hours before it was to consider a report critical of the arson finding leading to Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution for the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 fire.

Baltimore-based arson expert Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, concluded the arson finding was scientifically unsupported and investigators at the scene had “poor understandings of fire science.” His report has bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that Willingham was innocent and wrongly executed.

Perry told The Associated Press the terms of the dismissed board members were expiring and replacing them “was pretty standard business as usual.” But several board members have served more than one term and had their appointments renewed.

I concluded at the time that, although there was no way we could determine guilt or innocence by reading these reports, there was more than enough doubt to at least stay the execution and consider a new trial.  If the state executes someone, they need to be SURE.  A new trial would have cost some money and time and bad press for the state if the conviction was not upheld, but it would have cost less than a life.

So – the reason we’re here – the update.

The Houston Chronicle reported this week that the commission finally released the report about the arson investigation.  They concluded that while the investigators didn’t err in their investigation, the science used was faulty.  The science did not meet standards adopted in 1992 for arson investigation.  Surprised? 

If the Governor’s intent was to make sure that no one could prove the state executed an innocent man, it worked.  We’ll just never know.  I’m not saying the guy is innocent – by all accounts he was a pretty bad guy – but I’m just saying we’ll never know whether he was wrongly executed or not.  Would another trial have really been so bad?



  1. RockheadedMama says

    While some may be feel as if there is a question as to Willingham’s innocence, there really is no doubt at all of his innocence. Another man, Ernest Willis, on death row with exactly the same forensic evidence as Willingham was exonerated and let out of prison because of the scientific reports — which came from the Innocence Project btw.
    The best story on this matter, IMO, came from the New Yorker mag, and The Innocence Project has a great deal of info on it.
    Perry made each and every Texas citizen and resident a murderer the day he refused to stay Willingham’s execution.
    Willingham btw, was NOT a dangerous man, but a 23 yo, unemployed and flawed young man – who dearly loved his daughters and never EVER stopped saying he was innocent. What was done to Willingham was cruel and inhumane – and should be a source of shame to all of us.

  2. shavedwombat says

    the man is dead because his execution date fell during an election year…..and for no other reason. Perry is not a governor, he’s a parody of a persona. To have halted this execution for further investigation would have been detrimental to his image as the rootinest, tootinest, coyote shootinest politician in the west….so if someone had to die to preserve that image, well he was a bad guy anyway. Probably guilty of something right?
    I’ve never seen a state more in love with it’s own stereotype…it’s sad.

  3. June says

    I read all of the information I could find on this matter last year and have followed it to see what Perry’s hand-picked commission would decide. My thoughts then and now are that Perry allowed an innocent man be executed. The commission may have ruled the fire investigators did not err, but since the new standards were introduced in 1992, we know that Perry erred in his refusal to allow the stay. As RockheadedMama said, he was a flawed young man, but was not a dangerous “bad” guy. We have only to look at the number of men who have been wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit, to realize that it is not just possible, but more likely probable that Willingham wasn’t the first to be wrongly executed.

  4. Scott Barzilla says

    I have always been opposed to the death penalty but not because of cases like this. This is just a sick byproduct. Simply put, we do not have the right to take someone elses life unless we or our family is in IMMINENT danger. We cannot presume to determine who is worthy to live or die. I find it hilarious that those that whine and moan about the rights of the unborn but have no qualms about ending the life of someone actually living and breathing. Sure YOU might think they are worthless but it is utterly dangerous when we start measuring a life’s worth by public referendum.

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