News 09.13.10

Cameron Todd Willingham: Wrongfully Convicted and Executed in Texas

By Innocence Staff

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.


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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

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 responded 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 addendum.

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:

Innocence Project Press Releases:

Selected Press Coverage and Multimedia:

September 2011

August 2011

July 2011

May 2011

April 2011

January 2011

October 2010

September 2010

August 2010

July 2010

May 2010

More media coverage…

Background on Broader Issues:

The Just Science Coalition:

Understand the Causes:

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  1. Fred Kyeyune says:

    I would first of all like to express my sincere gratitude to innocence project org for the noble work you’re doing in fighting for justice for those that have been treated unfairly in the eyes of the law. It’s so sad that in a country like the US which we Ugandans admire and always wish that our lawmakers could benchmark in abid to create a free and unbiased judicial system such loopholes. Justice denial in Uganda is common due to the existence of a non-indepedent judicial system and rampant corruption that has made the system rot and the question remains of how can justice be administered free and fairly regardless of one’s status in the society?

  2. Kay Simmonds says:

    Why was the prosecutor and governor not charged with manslaughter? They knowingly put an innocent man to death. Gross negligence and a severe consequence – they failed to act on their duties.

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