A report just released shows that Cameron Willingham was innocent of the arson for which the State of Texas executed him in 2004.
Cameron Willingham was convicted of the capital murder of his three young children, who died in a house fire just before Christmas in 1991. Even after his hair had caught on fire, Willingham had to be restrained, and ultimately handcuffed, to keep him from going back into the burning house to rescue his daughters.
Arson investigators believed the fire was intentionally set, and despite the absence of any motive, police settled on Mr. Willingham as a suspect. He was arrested and charged with capital murder, and convicted primarily based on arson investigators’ testimony about charring marks and other observations that they asserted proved the fire was arson. The State also introduced testimony from a jailhouse snitch, who later recanted.
Mr. Willingham maintained his innocence. In January 2004, Dr. Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, reviewed the evidence in the case and concluded it was an accidental fire. The conclusion that it was arson was based, he said, on “junk science.”
Despite this new evidence of innocence, Mr. Willingham was executed by the State of Texas on February 17, 2004.
In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate mistakes and misconduct by forensic scientists. In August 2009, noted fire scientist Craig Beyler completed his investigation into the Willingham case. As The New Yorker reports, Beyler concluded that “investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.” Their approach, he said, seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.”
The commission is reviewing Beyler’s findings. In its own report expected next year, it could make Texas the first state to officially admit that it executed an innocent man.