News 09.13.10

Cameron Todd Willingham: Wrongfully Convicted and Executed in Texas

By Innocence Staff

Documents from the Cameron Todd Willingham Posthumous Pardon filing can be found here


Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters 13 years earlier. He always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by leading experts before Willingham was executed. Since 2004, further evidence in the case has led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire for which he was executed.The Texas Forensic Science Commission issued its report on the convictions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis on April 15, 2011 recommending more education and training for fire investigators and implementing procedures to review old cases (the commission issued an addendum to the report on October 28, 2011.

Ask the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham!

Read more on the case below, along with news coverage and key documents.

Case Summary

Media Coverage

Final Texas Forensic Science Commission report on Willingham / Willis cases

Texas Forensic Science Commission — History and Key Documents

Myths and Facts About the Willingham Case

• The New Yorker:

“Trial By Fire”

Complete Trial Transcript


Case Summary


On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Corsicana, Texas, home Cameron Todd Willingham shared with his wife and three daughters, killing the three girls. Willingham, who was asleep when the fire started, survived. His wife was at the Salvation Army buying Christmas presents for the girls.

At Willingham’s 1992 trial, prosecutors claimed he intentionally set fire to his home in order to kill his own children. Willingham said he was asleep in the home when the fire started and always maintained his innocence. He was convicted based on the testimony of forensic experts who said they had determined that the fire was intentionally set and a jailhouse informant who said Willingham had confessed to him. On October 29, 1992, he was sentenced to death. (

Download the full trial transcripts here


Thirteen years later, in the days leading up to Willingham’s execution, his attorneys sent the governor and the Board of Pardon and Parole

a report from Gerald Hurst

, a nationally recognized arson expert, saying that Willingham’s conviction was based on erroneous forensic analysis. Documents obtained by the Innocence Project show that state officials received that report but apparently did not act on it. Willingham was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville on February 17, 2004.

Months after Willingham was executed,

the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report

that raised questions about the forensic analysis. The Innocence Project assembled five of the nation’s leading independent arson experts to review the evidence in the case, and this prestigious group issued

a 48-page report

finding that none of the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was valid.

In 2006, the Innocence Project

formally submitted the case

to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, asking the empowered state entity to launch a full investigation. Along with the Willingham case, the Innocence Project submitted information about another arson case in Texas where identical evidence was used to send another man to death row. In that case,

Ernest Willis was exonerated

and freed from prison because the forensic evidence was not valid.

In 2008, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to investigate the case. The panel’s review was interrupted several times over the last two years, however, and continues today. In 2009, an arson expert hired by the commission issued a report finding that experts who testified at Willingham’s trial should have known it was wrong at the time. Days before the expert was set to testify, however, Gov. Rick Perry replaced key members of the panel, delayed the investigation for months.

An investigative report in the September 7, 2009, issue of the New Yorker

deconstructs every facet of the state’s case against Willingham. The 16,000-word article by David Grann shows that all of the evidence used against Willingham was invalid, including the forensic analysis, the informant’s testimony, other witness testimony and additional circumstantial evidence.

On October 14, Texas Judge Charlie Baird held a hearing in the Willingham case to determine whether to hold a court of inquiry. And on October 15, the Texas Forensic Science Commission discussed the case in depth at its regular meeting. On April 15, 2011,

the TFSC issued its final report

in the Willingham / Willis cases.

In July 2011, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

issued an opinion

in response to questions from the commission about jurisdiction and authority. The opinion prohibits the commission from investigating “specific items of evidence that were tested or offered into evidence prior to” September 1, 2005. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck


that the “the reasoning of the opinion is wrong and contrary to the clear intention of the legislature when it formed the Commission.”

In September 2011, the TFSC met to consider an addendum to its final report on the Willingham and Willis cases. The meeting adjourned without action on

the draft addendum

, however. On October 28, 2011, the commission issued the report



Read more about the TFSC and download key documents relating to the panel here


Resources in the case are below, along with background on the role of unvalidated forensics in wrongful convictions.



Key Reports and Documents:


Final Texas Forensic Science Commission report on Willingham / Willis cases





John Lentini presentation at Court of Inquiry hearing


Court of Inquiry Petition by Eugenia Willingham and Patricia Willingham Cox


Report of Craig Beyler to the Texas Forensic Science Commission

2009: New Yorker investigation:

Trial by Fire


Innocence Project Letter to TFSC


Expert Panel Report on Willingham and Willis convictions


Innocence Project Filing to Texas Forensic Science Commission


Gerald Hurst Report on Willingham Arson Investigation


Hurst report on Ernest Willis arson investigation


2004: Chicago Tribune Investigation:

Man Executed on Disproved Forensics

– 2004

Documents Obtained from Texas via Open Records Act


Download the

complete Trial Transcript

Visit our Texas Forensic Science Commission page

for more key documents.

Innocence Project Press Releases:



Texas Forensic Science Commission Set to Discuss Willingham Case and Arson Convictions Statewide


400 People from 120 Texas Towns – Including 15 Exonerated with DNA Testing – Urge State Panel to Continue Willingham Probe


New Report Shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, Executed in Texas in 2004, Was Innocent


Innocence Project Submits Two Arson Cases to Texas Commission and Requests System-Wide Review

Selected Press Coverage and Multimedia:


September 2011
Austin American-Statesman:

Thanks to Willingham Inquiry, Old Cases Getting New Look

Texas Tribune:

Forensic Panel Calls for Review of Past Arson Cases


Perry ‘Squashed’ Texas Execution Probe, Ex-Official Says


Texas Tribune:

Advocates Urge Panel to Continue Willingham Probe


Texas Tribune:

Sam Bassett, the Texas Tribune Interview (Video)

– (9/8/11)


Huffington Post:

Cameron Todd Willingham Execution —

Rick Perry’s Role Deserves Scrutiny


August 2011
Houston Chonicle Op-Ed by Barry Scheck:

Forensic Science Commission Still Has Work To Do



Dallas Morning News Editorial:

Forensic Panel Should Be Aggressive, Despite AG Opinion


July 2011

Houston Chronicle:

Forensic Panel Off Willingham Case, Attorney General Says

Texas Tribune:

New Leader for Inquiry Into Forensic Evidence


May 2011


Bradley Out As Texas Forensic Panel Head


April 2011
Associated Press:

Texas Forensic Panel Adopts Arson Recommendations


January 2011

Dallas Morning News:

Texas Forensic Panel Delays Final Decision in Willingham Arson Case

Houston Chronicle, Column by Rick Casey:

Willingham: Scientists vs. Lawyers


Austin American Statesman:

Arson Experts Testify Investigation Violated Standards



Fire Expert Criticizes Investigation That Led to Execution


October 2010
Associated Press:

Texas Prosecutor Denies Showing Bias in Arson Case


The Dallas Morning News:

Forensic Panel Criticized Their Leader for Calling Willingham ‘a Guilty Monster’


The New York Times:

Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions


Texas Observer:

At Willingham Hearing, Science Finally Takes Center Stage


The Wall Street Journal law blog:

Texas Reopens Case of Man Executed For Arson, Murder


Austin American-Statesman:

Appellate Court Orders Halt to Willingham Inquiry


Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Court blocks ruling in death-penalty inquiry



Injustice, Texas Style



September 2010


Texas Tribune:

Forensic Commissioners Push Back Against Bradley


Texas Tribune:

Forensic Science Commission Takes Up Willingham


Dallas Morning News Blog:

Bradley loses, Forensics Panel Will Call Experts


Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

State panel declines to clear investigators in Willingham case


Associated Press:

Texas Panel Unwilling to End inquiry in arson case


KERA Public TV and Radio for North Texas:

Panel Unwilling To End Arson Inquiry & Midday Roundup


Dallas Morning News Blog:

Looks Like Forensics Chair Bradley Will Lose Battle


Associated Press:

Texas Panel Goes Into Closed Session in Arson Case


Dallas Morning News:

State Forensic Hearing on Cameron Todd Willingham Arson Case Goes Behind Closed Doors


Associated Press:

Texas Inquiry into Disputed Arson Case Could End


Houston Chronicle (op-ed):

Panel Must Clear the Air in Arson Case Investigation


Austin American-Statesman:

State Forensic Science Commission Takes up Arson Case Again


Austin Chronicle:

Fire Marshals Stand by Original Arson Report


Houston Chronicle:

Arson Panel’s Draft Report Blasted


Dallas Morning News:

Editorial: Forensics Panel Should Hear Experts


Associated Press:

Lawmakers Criticize Panel’s Arson Investigation


Associated Press:

Texas Panel Ready to End Disputed Arson Inquiry


San Antonio Express:

A Matter of Life and Death in Texas


Reason Magazine:

The Case for Bifurcated Trials


Houston Chronicle:

Forensic Revolt Again Is In Order (09/12/10)

Austin American-Statesman:

Fire Marshal Backs Arson Finding


Corsicana Daily Sun:

Willingham Case on Science Panel’s Agenda


Houston Chronicle:

Finding Ways to Reduce Wrongful Convictions


August 2010


Burnt Orange blog:

Rick Perry Seceded from the People of Texas


Austin American-Statesman:

Innocence Project Comments on Willingham Case


Austin Chronicle:

Forensic Science Commission Draws Heat


July 2010


Texas state board says arson investigators used flawed science


Houston Chronicle:

Science Defeats DA 8-0


Houston Chronicle:

Panel Cites ‘Flawed Science’ in Arson Case


Austin American-Statesman:

Commission: No negligence or misconduct by investigators in fatal fire


Houston Chronicle:

Dousing a Troublesome Arson Probe


Houston Chronicle Op-Ed by Barry Scheck and Patricia Cox:

Forensic Panel Must Resist Panel’s Efforts at Sabotage


Houston Chronicle:

Forensic Panel must Resist Chair’s Efforts at Sabotage



May 2010

Houston Chronicle:

Let’s Have a Cheer for Small Victories



More media coverage…



Background on Broader Issues:

The Just Science Coalition:

Supporting Forensic Reform to Improve the Accuracy of the Criminal Justice System

Understand the Causes:

Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science

September 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on improving forensic science

(referencing Willingham’s case).

Background on the cases of 17 people exonerated through DNA testing after spending years on death row


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  1. Neil Carr says:

    The amount of times I have seen films potraying the justice system Appal’s me the justice system is not fit for purpose.Only if you have money and enough of it to defend yourself…the poor do not have that privilege of justice.

  2. Debra Bussell says:

    I just watched a movie and started reading about Cameron’s case. Shame on the defense, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the probation and parole board. Shame on the fire investigators! Shame on the people that outright lied. Everybody’s too ashamed to admit they made a mistake but to make a mistake over a person’s life is inexcusable. Just because you’re poor and made other mistakes in your life does not mean you are a murderer. The death penalty should be obsolete as absolutely no one can be 100% sure of a person’s guilt except for God and that person. God will take care of people when their time comes. That’s fine if you have to leave them in prison all their life; at least they have time to prove their innocence. The court system fails all the time. Proving someone’s innocence after they have been executed is too late. Look how many lives were ruined for no reason.

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