Cameron Todd Willingham, Cameron Willingham
Associated Press
Cameron Todd Willingham

Texas Capital Punishment System Examined as Doubts Remain in Cameron Todd Willingham Case

October 20, 2009 11:30 AM
by Denis Cummings
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is under fire for delaying a state investigation into the execution of a convicted arsonist in 2004. Reports have determined that the man was convicted using disproved fire science techniques, suggesting that he may have been innocent.

Perry’s Handling of Case Causes Controversy

Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana, Texas, man convicted of starting a fire in his home that killed his three daughters in 1991, was executed by the state of Texas in 2004. Several reports have condemned the investigation that led to Willingham’s conviction, raising the possibility that the state may have executed an innocent man.

The Willingham case has gained national attention in the past several months due to a piece by David Grann in The New Yorker and a state-sanctioned report by fire scientist Craig Beyler that both concluded that there was almost no scientific evidence to suggest that the fire was an act of arson.

Gov. Rick Perry, who was governor when Willingham was executed and refused to grant clemency, has remained adamant that Willingham was guilty. He has called Willingham a “monster,” and called arson scientists who have questioned the investigation “supposed experts.”

He has delayed the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s progress in reviewing Beyler’s report by removing four members. He has also refused to release documents concerning his review of Willingham’s appeal for clemency.

Perry is facing of a stiff challenge in the Republican primary from Sen. Mary Kay Hutchinson, who has accused Perry of “giving liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty.”

Polls show that three-quarters of Texans support the death penalty, but the Willingham case could cause the public to question the system. “Texans believe in law and order, but mostly Texans are fair,” said former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a potential Democratic candidate for governor, to the Dallas Morning News. “They believe in the death penalty, but the guy had better be guilty.”

Former Gov. Mark White, who supported the death penalty during his time in office, said this week that the state should consider abolishing it. “I think the system is so unreliable it creates an unnecessary possibility that an innocent person would be executed in Texas. And I don’t think anybody in Texas wants that to happen,” he said.

The Case of Cameron Todd Willingham

Willingham was at home with his three daughters on Dec. 23, 1991. According to his account, he was sleeping before he was awakened by his daughter screaming that there was a fire. He searched for his daughters, but, unable to locate them in the smoke and flames, he fled the house.

All three daughters died of smoke inhalation. The investigators found what they believed to be telltale signs of arson. The fire had burned “fast and hot” and low to the ground, and there were brown stains on the floor, suggesting that an accelerant had been used. They also found three separate areas that appeared to be the start of the fire, indicating that the fires had been started intentionally.

Though there was no apparent motive, prosecutors painted Willingham, who had a long history of minor criminal offences, as a sociopath. They also received testimony from a prison inmate who claimed that Willingham confessed the crime to him.

Willingham was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. In January 2004, a month before Willingham was executed, fire expert Gerald Hurst examined Willingham’s case and found many flaws with the investigation, saying that it was based on “junk science.” He sent a report to the state parole board, which denied Willingham’s application for clemency. Perry was also shown the report before he too refused to grant clemency.

In December 2004, the Chicago Tribune published a report that cited four fire experts, including Hurst. It found that Willingham was “convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances.” The Innocence Project soon published its own report based on the opinions of five fire experts, who were similarly critical of the investigation.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to examine the case in 2008, and arson expert Craig Beyler put together a report for the committee. He determined that the fire marshal who investigated the fire “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,” and his findings “are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

The city of Corsicana released a letter by Fire Chief Donald McMullan refuting some of the charges made by Beyler. In it, McMullan accuses Beyler of “assuming the role of an advocate and not acting as an objective, independent voice.”

Background: Death penalty in Texas

Texas is well known for having the most active capital punishment system in the U.S. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court made rulings that reinstated capital punishment four years after it was declared unconstitutional, Texas has killed 441 inmates, accounting for more than a third of the 1,176 inmates killed nationwide.

During that time, 10 men—Randall Dale Adams, Clarence Brandley, John C. Skelton, Federico M. Macias, Michael Blair, Vernon McManus, Muneer Deeb, Ricardo Aldape Guerra, Ernest Ray Willis and Michael Toney—have been exonerated of their crimes after spending time on death row. The case of Willis, an accused arsonist, is remarkably similar to Willingham’s; the cases are examined together in the Innocence Project and Beyler reports.

There has yet to be an executed man who has been clearly shown to be innocent, but there are several cases where it is a possibility. The Star-Telegram outlines the cases of Ruben Cantu and David Spence, where key witness testimony has changed.

Under the Texas capital punishment system, the inmates’ final appeals are made to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor. However, the board and the governor rarely take action; in the 200 executions since January 2001, just three commutations have been made outside of 30 ordered by the Supreme Court.

According to an estimate by the Houston Chronicle, the board, which does not meet in person to discuss cases, has refused to review more than 50 cases. Grann cites a Texas appellate judge who calls the clemency system a “legal fiction.”

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