A Texas Arson Conviction that Could Very Well Be False

Defense

A famous death row case in Texas involving alleged arson continues to baffle the state, the nation, and the world. The house fire happened in 1991, and a little girl who was playing in her yard nearby alerted her mother to the smoke. From here, what many consider a wrongful conviction (and subsequent) execution began. This is the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a father who was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed for the murder of his three daughters.

The Fire

According to The New Yorker, the young girl and her mother rushed to the burning house where they found Mr. Willingham on his front porch – clad only in jeans, blackened by soot, and with singed eyelids and hair – screaming that his children were burning. Inside the burning house were his one-year-old twin girls and his two-year-old daughter. The man beseeched the woman to call for help, and in the meantime, he found a stick and used it to break one of the windows in his girls’ bedroom. Fire burst through the broken pane, and Willingham ended up kneeling in the front yard – intermittently wailing sorrowfully and then falling silent (as one neighbor described it).

The Fire Department

The neighbor who called in the fire returned to Willingham’s home, and as she did, she witnessed all five windows in the girl’s bedroom explode as flames blasted out. Soon after, the fire department was on the scene, and Willingham pleaded with them to save his girls – who were in the room where the fire burned the most intensely.

As more firemen arrived, one – who donned an air tank and face mask – attempted to enter the home through a window but was forced to retreat when he was hit by water from one of the hoses. He then pushed his way through the front door – encountering intense fire and smoke – and headed into the home where, upon reaching the kitchen, he witnessed a refrigerator that filled the back door.

A Police Chaplain

While Willingham watched the fire roil, and as he grew more and more emotional, a police chaplain led him toward the back of a truck and did his best to help calm him. Willingham told the chaplain that he had sprung awake when he heard his oldest daughter – who was only two – screaming for him (his wife had left home earlier that morning). During their talk, a fireman with the two-year-old in his arms rushed out of the burning home, and CPR was performed on her. At this time, Willingham – who was a young man of 23 and who had a strong build – rushed the twins’ room – causing the chaplain and another man on the scene to physically restrain and then cuff him (for what the men called his and our protection). Another fireman later shared that he had physically stopped the father from going into the home due to the evident danger involved.

The Hospital

At the hospital, Willingham learned that his oldest daughter – who had been found in the parents’ bedroom and not in the girls’ room – had succumbed to smoke inhalation. The twins were later found on the floor of their room and, while their bodies were badly burned, they had also ultimately succumbed to smoke inhalation.

The Family

At the time of the fire, the town – Corsicana, Texas – had fallen on hard times, and much of the small population was unemployed. While Willingham’s 21-year-old wife was employed in her brother’s bar, he had lost his job as a car mechanic and stayed home with the children. The citizens of Corsicana collected money to help pay for the funeral service.

The Investigation

Willingham expressed his desire to understand how the fire happened – why his children had been taken from him – and allowed the police to search the burned home. The primary investigator, Douglas Fogg, was a local man who had done a tour in Vietnam, had earned four purple hearts, had returned to become a fireman, had been fighting fires for 20 years, and was – at the time of the Willingham fire – a certified arson investigator (which at the time required very little experience or training). He explained his work this way – You learn that fire talks to you. Soon, Manuel Vasquez – who had more than 1,200 fire investigations under his belt – joined Fogg. Both men had adopted a stance that every fire tells its own story and that the fire itself creates evidence (a position that likely contributed to Willingham’s ultimate demise).

Moving through the House

Four days after the fire, both men visited the burned shell of a home, and according to protocol, they made their way from the least damaged parts to the areas that were most badly burned. As they circled the house’s interior edges, they discovered that – in the kitchen doorway mentioned earlier – there was only enough room to squeeze past that refrigerator. This was later deemed a matter of overcrowding in a kitchen with two refrigerators rather than an attempt to block passage. They found only heat and smoke damage in the kitchen and moved further in. From the kitchen, a central hall led back to the master bedroom and the children’s room and onto the front door and front porch where the neighbor and her daughter first spotted Willingham.

Pictures on the Walls

Vasquez, who relayed his deep curiosity in the intricate details of every fire investigation, spotted some pictures that puzzled him in the utility room. He identified these as skulls and the Grim Reaper, and these images were later deemed somehow relevant to Willingham’s case. From here, they made their way to the parents’ bedroom, where the two-year-old had been found and determined that it – too – had suffered mostly heat and smoke damage. The men posited that the fire had likely started farther in, and as they made their way toward the living room and the children’s bedroom, they realized that the walls had been badly charred along their base.

Flames Burn Upward

As gases heat up, they become less weighted and tend to burn in an upward – rather than downward – direction. The two investigators saw that the fire had burned close to the floor and that there were puddle-shaped burn patterns covering the floor. Fire investigators use the term puddle configurations and pour patterns to describe these concentrated bursts of fire. Additional clues gathered included:

  • Multiple layers of tile, carpeting, and flooring had burned

  • The metal springs supporting the beds of the children were charred white, which was deemed indicative of heat radiating under them.

  • The floor had taken the brunt of the fire damage (while the ceiling would be expected to do so)

  • A piece of glass from one of the bedroom windows that had broken contained what fire investigators call crazing, which forensic textbooks use to identify fires that burn fast and hot, which generally means that a liquid accelerant was involved. Experts agree, however, that accelerants do not significantly increase the heat generated by fires.

  • There appeared to be a trail of fire that left the girls’ room, went into the hall, took a sharp right, and moved out the front door and onto the porch.

  • Even the front door’s threshold (under the aluminum outer) was burned, and there were brown stains on the porch concrete, which the two men deemed consistent with the use of an accelerant.

Searching for the Fire’s Origin

Fire investigators look for a telltale V when they want to know where a fire began. When something catches on fire, the heat and smoke generated radiate up and out, which means the bottom of the V can indicate the fire’s point of origin. The men found just such a sign in the hall – in addition to signs of origination at the front door and in the girls’ room. The fire investigators came to the conclusion that someone had intentionally set the deadly fire.

The Theory

The theory that the two investigators came to was that someone had taken liquid accelerant and poured it all over the children’s bedroom (including directly under the beds where they lay asleep) then proceeded to pour more throughout the adjacent hallway and out the door. As such, the perpetrator created what is known as a fire barrier, which helps to ensure that no one can escape the burning structure. With the refrigerator blocking the back door, the house was – according to the investigators – rendered inescapable. Samples of materials that had burned were sent off for testing, and a sample from near the front door’s threshold tested positive for a substance that is common to the lighting fluid used for charcoal. The house fire was then deemed a triple homicide, and the girls’ father was identified as the only suspect.

A Shift in Sentiment

While the chaplain and the neighbor who had first witnessed and interacted with Willingham had originally identified him as bereft, there was a shift in sentiment over time (and after charges were pressed). The consensus seemed to be that – upon further reflection – things were different than they had originally seemed, and the chaplain shared that he had gotten the sense that the man was in complete control of himself all along (intimating that his grief was an act or display). There is an array of scientific evidence that indicates the memories of witnesses can be swayed by subsequent information that shifts the context of the situation.

Troubled Backgrounds

Both Willingham and his wife came from troubled backgrounds, and they were said to have a tumultuous relationship. The fire occurred on December 23, when Willingham’s wife was picking up a Christmas present for the girls, and he was brought in for questioning on December 28. Both fire investigators were at the interrogation, which was led by Jimmie Hensley, who was conducting his first case involving arson charges. Willingham shared that his wife had left the house that morning and that he had proceeded to give the twins bottles when they cried. There was a safety gate across the girls’ room that prevented the twins from leaving but that their two-year-old could maneuver. As they often did, he let the twins nap on the floor after they had finished their bottles.

Awakening to the Fire

Because his older daughter was still sleeping in her bed, Willingham returned to his own room to go back to sleep. The next thing he remembered was his two-year-old crying out for him and a house that was already smoke-filled. He scrambled to pull on a pair of pants, yelled for his oldest daughter to get out of the house, and attempted to reach the girls’ bedroom. Once there, his hair caught fire, and as he patted it out, he got down and moved on all fours – groping for his girls along the way. Willingham did not know that his oldest had been in his room – and wasn’t sure if she was there when he left it or if she came in later. When he felt himself passing out, he stumbled toward the front exit. Mr. Willingham described the air in the house as resembling the smell of wires and electrical components when the family’s microwave had blown up a few weeks prior.

Charges Brought

Ultimately, Willingham faced murder charges and a potential death sentence. He was offered a plea deal that involved admitting guilt in exchange for life without parole (avoiding execution), which he refused. The state’s case focused on what the fire investigators said amounted to dozens of arson indicators. The trial ended in just two days, and the jury took no more than an hour to convict. Twelve years later, an expert in arson studied the evidence in Willingham’s case and declared that his conviction was based on junk science. Willingham was, nonetheless, executed by the state. Later, a state-run commission found that there was no scientific evidence supporting the arson conviction.

A Dedicated Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

If you are facing a criminal charge, Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, dedicates his practice to zealously fighting for the legal rights of clients like you. Your case and its advantageous outcome are important, so please do not wait to contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 for more information today.

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