In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the state of Texas. His crime? Arson that resulted in the deaths of his three daughters in 1991.
Prior to Mr. Willingham’s execution, arson expert Gerald Hurst filed a critique of the findings of the fire marshall in light of new technology. Recognizing advances in the field, Mr. Hurst explained “. . . the report more or less simply reflects the shortcomings in the state of the art prior to the beginning of serious efforts to introduce standards and to test old theories that had previously been accepted on faith.” The report fell on deaf ears. Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored the report and the execution of Mr. Willingham proceeded as scheduled.
In 2006, The Innocence Project released a report created by a collection of arson experts – an autopsy of sorts as to what happened in the Willingham case, as well as another Texas arson case. Their conclusions matched those of Gerald Hurst, finding, in part, “While we have no doubt that these witnesses believed what they were saying, each and every one of the indicators relied upon have since been scientifically proven to be invalid.”
In 2009, the Texas Forensic Science Commission received a report from scientist Craig L. Beyler, Ph.D. The report stated, in part, “The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination.”
While prohibited from making official findings of negligence in the Willingham case, the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a report in 2011, indicating, “The FSC recognizes that the value of various incendiary indicators and the manner in which they are identified and evaluated have changed since the Willingham and Willis investigations were conducted.”
Now the Willingham family is seeking a posthumous pardon. “For us, Todd’s family, death doesn’t end the responsibility to rectify injustice,” said his cousin, Patricia Willingham Cox, according to a copy of her remarks provided by the family’s attorneys. “Our passionate and relentless efforts to free Todd and clear his name has spanned twenty long mentally and emotionally challenging years; leaving us baffled and wondering how many more lie ahead.”
The family is petitioning Governor Rick Perry and the state of Texas. You can add your name to the petition here.
The Willingham case isn’t the first arson case to be debunked. David Lee Gavitt was released earlier this year, after having spent more than 25 years in prison for an arson that wasn’t. James Kluppelberg was similarly exonerated this year after 24 years in prison for an arson that wasn’t.