The case of Cameron Todd Willingham [PART 2]
Updated: Mar 19, 2022
Click here for part 1. Our story picks up about two years after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed.
WARNING: Some sources may contain graphic images.
In 2006, the Innocence Project submitted a report to the newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission. This nine person committee was founded in May 2005 “to investigate allegations of professional negligence or professional misconduct that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis conducted by an accredited laboratory.” The Innocence Project’s report eventually led to the Commission hiring Craig Beyler to investigate the Willingham case further.
Beyler’s report was completed in 2009, and covered both the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham and another convicted arsonist, Ernest Ray Willis. Willis was convicted in 1987 of setting a fire that killed two people the previous year, also in Texas. He was sentenced to death but released in October 2004 after a judge concluded there was no evidence he actually started the fire.
The report stated that fire science was a relatively new thing. In the 1980’s and before, fire investigation was “an art based solely on upon personal experience and the associated folklore.” NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, was published by the National Fire Protection Association on February 10, 1992 — months before Todd Willingham’s trial. Beyler’s report also blasted Manuel Vasquez’s findings as “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.” However, it did acknowledge that the information in these standards, while published in 1992, weren’t widely known or implemented until the mid 1990’s. It also debunked a great deal of the fire science used by the original investigators, which I’ll get into more later. The Corsicana Fire Department released a 21 page rebuttal of the report, standing by their findings.
The report was officially completed on August 17, 2009, and set to be submitted to the Texas Forensic Science Commission in October. But just two days before the scheduled hearing, governor Rick Perry replaced four of the Commission’s nine members (some source said three). At least one of them had similar beliefs to Perry, both on the Willingham case and I believe politics in general, and many people believe Perry did this to sabotage the investigation — and the hearing was postponed indefinitely. Others have said Perry’s decision not to spare Todd was political — it would be difficult to get reelected in Texas if he was soft on a convicted criminal.
Perry called his abrupt Commission change “pretty normal protocol” and stated “If you've got a whole new investigation going forward, it makes a lot more sense to put the new people in now and let them start the full process, rather than bring people in there for a short period of time and then replace them…I think it makes a whole lot more sense to make a change now than to make a change later." A spokesperson for Perry said he still believed the original verdict was correct. Later that month, Perry said the new Commission members would move forward with the investigation.
In 2010, at their quarterly meeting, the commission acknowledged that “flawed science” was used in the forensic investigation, but said that Manuel Vasquez and Doug Fogg weren’t guilty of misconduct, that they were simply doing what was the standard at the time.
In September 2010, lawyers from the Innocence Project filed a request to exonerate Todd. The hearing was scheduled to begin on October 13 of that year, but was postponed by a day when Judge Charlie Baird was asked to recuse himself from the case. He was either asked this by Navarro County prosecutor R. Lowell Thompson or the Navarro County district attorney, depending on which source you read. Baird was asked to recuse himself because he’d been on the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1995 and had voted to uphold Todd’s death sentence, so it was believed he couldn’t be impartial in this hearing. He refused to leave, and the hearing continued the following day, October 14.
The hearing continued, but in December, the 3rd Court of Appeals ruled that he should have recused himself and “abused his discretion” when he failed to do so. I couldn’t find anything about the hearing after this, so the ruling seemed to bring it to a halt.
In April 2011, the Texas Forensic Science Commission released a report saying current fire investigation was outdated and recommended changes. Later that year, a ruling was issued that kept the commission from investigating cases from before 2005 — the year they were founded. The ruling was made by Texas’s then-attorney general, Greg Abbott, who we’ll talk more about later.
In 2012, it was revealed that Judge Charlie Baird had been prepared to order Todd Willingham’s official exoneration. But because he was asked to recuse himself, bringing the hearing to a halt, the exoneration was never filed.
So I’ve already talked about why Todd was initially met with suspicion and eventually arrested. There’s his criminal history, inconsistencies in his story and odd behavior after the fire. But now I want to talk a little more in detail about why he may actually be innocent.
First and foremost, Corsicana Fire Department sergeant Jimmie Hensley admitted they didn’t really know what they were doing. After the fire, he even trained to become a certified arson investigator because the department realized they needed one. As for the Willingham fire, Hensley said he was “learning as I was going.”
There was also crime scene contamination, something that, anecdotally, I’ve seen pop up quite a bit in these high profile cases. By the time Manuel Vasquez got to the scene a few days after the fire, firefighters had tried to “clean up” and put piles of stuff from the house outside along the walls and had used tools to scrape debris from the floor.
So let’s get into some of the forensic evidence. Since Todd Willingham was executed, multiple fire experts have come forward and claimed the investigation was flawed. In Hurst’s 2004 report, he noted that the original investigators claimed they found 20 indicators of arson, which never happens — only one or two are normally found.
Another thing fire experts have cited is pour patterns. Like I mentioned earlier, liquid that soaked into the floor was thought to be put there intentionally, because if it were spilled accidentally it would have been cleaned up quickly. So these ‘pour patterns’ were thought to be a sign of a liquid accelerant being used. But they can be caused by flashover, which we also talked about earlier.
Multiple points of origin were also brought up. The idea is that whoever set the fire was pouring liquid accelerant in different areas so everything would burn. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Multiple points of origin could be caused by so-called “drop-down burning” and embers from the fire as well as other flammable things like paper or other liquids.
Another piece of evidence cited in the trial was the phenomenon known as “crazed glass.” This is what happens when a fire leaves web-like cracks in the glass surrounding it — usually in windows. But it’s now known that this isn’t necessarily caused by a liquid accelerant or unusually intense heat. It can actually happen when hot glass is sprayed with water, like when you pour water on a fire to put it out.
Intense heat was previously seen as an indicator of arson, such as with the childrens’ bed springs turning white. But a really hot, intense fire can spring up whether the fire was set accidentally or intentionally.
In the trial, Manuel Vasquez said wood can’t burn hot enough to melt an aluminum threshold, which had happened. So he thought accelerant had to have been used. But wood can actually burn that hot on its own.
So obviously Todd’s defenders say there’s not enough evidence that the fire was arson, and that it has to be an accident. So if this is true, what caused it?
The most common theory I’ve seen in my research is that one of the children, usually Amber, set the fire accidentally. Remember, Todd and Stacy were both smokers, and cigarette lighters are usually small enough that a child could get hold of one and possibly be playing with it without their parents’ notice. There was a heater in the childrens’ room since the room used to be a living room, and while all the kids were warned constantly to stay away from it, Amber didn’t always listen. She got in trouble on what I gather was a pretty regular basis for messing with the heater. A bottle of charcoal lighter was also found in the house, something a young child could have conceivably opened and accidentally started a fire with.
In his police interview on New Year’s Eve, Todd also complained about wires from a broken microwave as well as squirrels in the attic. At the time, police thought he was simply trying to divert attention from himself, since he already looked suspicious. But many fire experts have insisted in later years that investigators didn’t do a thorough job of ruling out arson. I’m not sure how thoroughly the faulty microwave was even looked into. It seems to be the investigators’ words against those of later fire experts.
So let’s talk about squirrels in the attic. I know at face value, it might sound like a strange defense, but let me give a personal anecdote. One year when I was in college and home for the Christmas break, a squirrel chewed through the power line in our backyard and ended up frying itself in the process. All of our electronics and appliances that weren’t on surge protectors were destroyed, and we had to call the fire department just to make sure a fire wouldn’t start. So squirrels can definitely cause electrical problems, even fires. However, in the case of the Willingham fire, this is unlikely. According to Todd, they had gotten rid of the squirrel problem before the fire, and the squirrels were supposedly in the attic, but the fire didn’t start in the attic.
One more thing I want to address is the main thing that I had trouble getting past, and that is the refrigerator. Remember, when the fire department arrived at the house, they found a refrigerator in front of the back door, seemingly blocking it. There were actually two refrigerators in that room, and the one in front of the door normally stood pretty close to it. Is it possible that it wasn’t put there to block an escape route, but that it was already there or close by and somehow got moved in the ensuing chaos?
In 2009, one of the jurors that sentenced Todd Willingham to death expressed doubts about the case. Not only was Dorenda Brokofsky unsure that Todd was “100 % guilty,” but she was surprised she got on the jury in the first place. Her father was a fire marshal and knew Doug Fogg, who was the assistant fire chief at the time and testified at the trial. Brokofsky was certain this would excuse her from being a juror as an obvious conflict of interest, but it wasn’t.
The last thing I want to talk about in the realm of “possible accident” is something I haven’t seen anyone else address. The Willingham fire took place two days before Christmas and, like many families, they had a Christmas tree. (I’m not sure if the tree was real or artificial, but the things I’m about to say can probably apply to either.) Between 2013 and 2017, around 160 fires began due to Christmas trees, usually from faulty electrical problems with the lights or from a heat source too close to the tree. Between 2014 and 2016, there were over 100,000 so-called “winter residential building fires.” And a Christmas tree that catches fire can engulf the room it’s in with in a minute. Is it possible that this fire was caused accidentally by problems with their Christmas tree?
So now let’s talk about the other big indicator of Todd’s guilt: His behavior. Much like in his hometown back in Oklahoma, he didn’t have a great reputation in Corsicana, especially among the police. He clearly wasn’t a very good guy…but was he a killer?
One thing brought up quite a bit, both in this case and in tons of others I look into, is seemingly odd behavior after a tragedy. People who are eventually arrested for murder are often seen after their victims’ death acting unusually happy or doing something fun that most people wouldn’t expect. But it’s important to remember that everyone grieves in different ways, and people don’t always behave exactly how you’d expect them to behave. Maybe Todd playing darts and laughing at the scene of the fire were his ways of coping. And what about his statement “you’re not the one who was supposed to die?” reportedly spoken over Amber’s body? Did he really mean to kill his other two children but not her? Or could he have been lamenting the fact that his children died instead of him?
And what about the car? Witnesses said Todd seemed way too eager to move his car as he was trapped outside the house, waiting for his children to be rescued. Todd would later say that he wanted to move the car for fear it would explode and cause further harm to the children.
Others in Todd’s corner have noted discrepancies as well. Elizabeth Gilbert, Todd’s prison pen pal, also noted how odd it was that Diane Barber was so certain that Todd never went back into the house after escaping. She left to call the fire department, and didn’t see Todd again for awhile. It’s entirely possible he went back in after she left — although he did later admit that he lied about going back in. Gerald Hurst questioned investigators’ claims that Todd would pour accelerants on the front porch, since there was a good chance he would be spotted. Hurst also didn’t think it was crazy that Todd’s feet weren’t injured, despite being barefoot. According to him, the floor in the hallway wouldn’t have been all that hot until after flashover.
Like I said before, after Todd was arrested, he stopped cooperating with authorities, including an outright refusal to take a polygraph. This has been seen as an indicator of his guilt — but is it? Polygraphs have a reputation for being…unreliable, at best. According to Psychology Today, polygraphs actually measure “nervous excitement” and operate “on the premise that if a person is telling the truth they will remain calm.” But much like people grieve in different ways, people react to tragedies and other circumstances in different ways as well. Is it possible Todd was afraid of failing a polygraph, even if he was being truthful, simply because he couldn’t be calm after the deaths of all three of his children? Or maybe because he was angry that he had been arrested for a crime he didn’t commit? It’s also worth the reminder that after Todd was sentenced to death, he wrote to numerous advocacy groups requesting that he be given a polygraph to clear his name.
In 2009, just after Craig Beyler’s report was released, prosecutor John Jackson was interviewed for a segment on Nightline on ABC. In his segment, Jackson noted the pattern that the supposed liquid accelerant had been poured on the floor — a pattern that was, he believed, a satanic symbol. This led him to believe that Todd worshipped Satan.
It’s not the first time something like this had been brought up in Todd’s case. Years earlier, Manuel Vasquez noted photos of skulls and posters for bands like Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin on the walls of the Willingham home. Todd’s serpent and skull tattoo has also been mentioned. However, evidence like this is something that most people today don’t believe is substantial at all.
So the next thing I want to address is Todd’s lack of motive. What reason would he have to not only kill all of his children, but destroy his entire home as well? It wasn’t insurance, at least not in the case of his children — the Willinghams didn’t have policies on them. Stacy’s father had policies on the children, but Todd and Stacy didn’t know about them — and even though they were able to cash them out after the childrens’ deaths, they only amounted to $15,000. Todd also gave investigators express permission to search his house, something you would expect a guilty person to at least be reluctant to do.
When he testified at Todd’s trial, Johnny Webb claimed Todd set the fire to cover up child abuse, but there was no evidence that the children were ever abused. Remember, when their autopsies were performed, no injuries were found on their bodies except the ones from the fire.
Just for my own speculation — and this is going to be really morbid — if you really wanted to kill someone, would a fire really be the most practical way to do it? Anecdotally speaking, in most of the cases I’ve looked into where fire was involved, the culprit actually killed their victim or victims using some other method, then set the fire in an attempt to hide physical evidence. Wouldn’t strangulation or suffocation be easier, especially for three toddlers who you could easily overpower?
Another witness who testified for the prosecution in the “punishment phase” was Dr. James Grigson. Grigson was a witness in hundreds of trials, many of them death penalty cases, which earned him the nickname “Dr. Death.” But Grigson was also pretty controversial. He was reprimanded twice by the American Psychiatric Association, who eventually expelled him. He’s also been accused of twisting facts to fit the narrative of whoever approached him with payment.
In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that defendants in a trial couldn’t be examined by a psychiatrist without their permission and information used in examinations couldn’t be used in the trail unless the defendant was told about it beforehand. Grigson was part of the reason why they decided this, as he often interviewed defendants without telling them that what they said would be used against them in trial.
Another particularly interesting person in all of this is Todd’s ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall. Stacy divorced Todd within a year of his death sentence, but continued to support him for quite awhile. At some point close to his execution, she changed her mind and became convinced he was guilty — a position that, as far as I know, she still believes today. But how she came to this conclusion is up for debate.
According to Stacy’s original story, she visited Todd right before he was executed and he confessed to her, causing her to change her mind and become convinced of his guilt. Later on, she said this actually wasn’t true and that she’d changed her mind after looking at the case files and hearing his conflicting statements during prison visits. She also said she didn’t know about Hurst’s report when she became convinced of Todd’s guilt.
In a statement from 2009, Stacy also changed her story about the days leading up to the fire. Stacy was interviewed by police on New Year’s Eve of 1991. She told them her last fight with Todd had been about two weeks before the fire. But now, she said they had a fight the night before the fire. She also claimed in this fight that she’d threatened divorce and Todd told her she would never get custody of their children. But in an interview she gave a few months after Todd’s execution, she never mentioned a confession.
In October 2010, just before the hearing requested by the Innocence Project, Stacy held a press conference where she once again claimed Todd confessed to her just before his execution, a claim she upheld in a statement in 2012. Why her story has changed so much over the years isn’t clear.
In March 2000, Johnny Webb, who testified in Todd Willingham's trial, sent a Motion to Recant Testimony to John Jackson, the original prosecuting attorney. Todd Willingham’s lawyer was never notified of this, and afterwards, Johnny recanted his recantation, so his original testimony in the trial still stood.
In 2014, new evidence emerged that cast even more doubt on Todd Willingham’s trial. Shortly before the trial began, John Jackson approached Johnny Webb, pressuring him to testify against Todd. Johnny was only supposed to be in prison for I believe eight years, but Jackson threatened him with a life sentence if he didn’t testify. He also said Johnny would get a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony.
In 1996, Johnny wrote a letter to John Jackson, reminding him of their bargain he had fulfilled his end of. Sure enough, Jackson pulled some strings and lessened the charges against Johnny. As a result, Johnny also became eligible for parole immediately. There was another report that Johnny had received money from a local businessman who said he’d done it because Jackson asked him to. It was the resurfacing of Johnny’s 1996 letter that brought all of this to light.
Jackson denied all of this, but a formal investigation was launched. In April 2017, he went on trial for judicial misconduct but was acquitted the following month.
In 2012, Todd’s stepmother and one of his cousins filed a petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to get him an official posthumous pardon. Another report from 2014 says that a posthumous pardon was rejected, but this one was filed by the Innocence Project. I’m not sure if there were two separate requests for a pardon filed, or what happened to the original one from 2012 if that’s the case.
Despite his earlier opposition, Todd’s stepmother and cousin called on Rick Perry to tell the Board to investigate again. Perry left office in 2015, and the current Texas Governor is Greg Abbott. If you don’t remember, Abbott was Texas attorney general in 2011 when he ruled that the Texas Forensic Science Commission couldn’t investigate evidence older than 2005. Abbott is known to be a supporter of the death penalty, though he has pardoned at least one death row inmate. Texas has been in the news a bit lately with Rodney Reed being granted a stay of execution. There’s been lots of speculation that Reed is not guilty of murdering 19-year-old Stacy Stites in 1996. But it’s not clear just how much influence Abbott had in the decision to delay Reed’s execution.
In the years following Todd’s execution, Jimmie Hensley still seems to believe he’s guilty. He’s speculated that Todd set the fire to cover up another crime, like the accidental killing of one of the children via discipline gone too far. I’ve also read reports that Stacy’s family blames Todd for his childrens’ deaths because they thought he should have tried harder to rescue them. I’ve even seen speculation that Todd himself felt so guilty, he may have subconsciously thought he “deserved” to die for failing to rescue his children.
In a 2010 interview, Rick Perry said he found it unnecessary to issue stays of execution because he thought there was already a good process in place to ensure guilt. As far as Todd Willingham, he brought up that nine courts, including the Supreme Court on four separate occasions, as well as Stacy Kuykendall had all looked at the case and determined guilt. He’s also said previously that the idea that Todd was innocent was ‘anti death penalty propaganda.’
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was Perry’s rival for the Republican nomination for Texas governor in 2010, said Perry’s decision wasn’t a good one. She supports the death penalty and said most Texans did, but also said most of them wanted to make sure the evidence showed a condemned prisoner was actually guilty.
So before we go I want to mention a few pieces of media that have been made on the case. There are several books about it, but one I want to highlight is Inferno: An Inquiry Into the Willingham Fire. Author J. Bennett Allen explores the theory that Amber set the fire accidentally by playing with the space heater. It’s a pretty quick read, and it’s free on Amazon, so go check it out if you're interested.
There’s also a well known documentary on the case — Incendiary: The Willingham Case. It actually shows a lot of the hearings and other court proceedings I’ve talked about here. In addition, Trial by Fire, a dramatized movie of the case, was released earlier in 2019.
You can find ways to watch Incendiary via this link.
You can watch Trial By Fire on YouTube or Amazon.
So that is about all I have for you today on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. I know this was quite long, and there’s still a lot I had to leave out for the sake of time or clarity. If you’re willing to go down the rabbit hole, I suggest you look into this case for yourself. And, as always, I would love to know what you think of this case, so let me know in the comments below.