News 11.09.09

Myths and Facts about the Willingham Case

Cameron Todd Willingham’s case raises strong opinions on many different levels, but some who defend his conviction and execution are distorting aspects of the case, and some of those distortions are being repeated or reported as fact.

Myth:

Reports from arson experts who reviewed the case have been exaggerated; the experts don’t really say the fire was not arson.

Facts:

• Nine nationally renowned, independent experts have reviewed the case in the last five years and found that the forensic analysis was wrong.

• Craig Beyler, hired by the Forensic Science Commission, said of one of the analysts: “None of these determinations have any basis in modern fire science,” and of the second analyst’s findings: “There is no basis for this notion in modern fire science.” He found that the investigators did not comport with the “standard of care” for fire investigation at the time, and that “a finding of arson could not be sustained.”

• In a report filed with the Forensic Science Commission in 2006, five leading experts said “each and every one of the indicators relied on [to determine that the fire was arson] have since been scientifically proven to be invalid.”

• Gerald Hurst, whose report was sent to the governor before Willingham’s execution, has said, “There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire…It was just a fire.”

Myth:

While it’s now clear that the forensic analysis was wrong, we couldn’t have known that with the science at the time.

Facts:

• The National Fire Protection Association had issued guidelines several months before Willingham’s trial that directly contradicted the analysis the experts used (and testified about at the trial).

• As far back as 1969, scientific experts published findings that some of the very indicators of arson used in the Willingham case were unreliable and could be misinterpreted.

• Even if the analysts didn’t know it was wrong at the time, they surely should have known it in the years following – and should have brought it to the attention of courts and prosecutors long before the 11th-hour efforts that preceded Willingham’s execution

Myth:

Even without evidence that the fire was arson, Willingham would have been convicted because there was substantial other evidence.

Facts:

• The forensic analysis is what determined that a crime had been committed in the first place. It was the centerpiece of the case, as it is in other arson cases.

• Other than a jailhouse informant who has been solidly discredited (and who recently asked when the statute of limitations for perjury runs out), the forensic analysis was the only evidence that a crime occurred. Other witnesses at Willingham’s trial provided contradictory statements about Willingham’s behavior after the fire, but those statements were not evidence that a crime had taken place.

Myth:

The faulty forensic analysis and lack of other evidence doesn’t matter because Willingham was a bad man and a sociopath, so he was guilty.

Facts:

• Two prosecution experts who testified that Willingham was a sociopath had never met him; one was expelled from his professional association three years later for unethical behavior.

• Willingham’s former probation officer and a judge both directly refute any notion that he was a sociopath.

• Willingham’s ex-wife said that he hit her but never tried to hurt the children. “He’s never hurt those kids,” she said.

• Willingham was not charged with spousal abuse; he was charged with murder.

Myth:

Willingham’s statements about the fire were inconsistent.

Facts:

• Willingham’s statements to law enforcement officials were remarkably consistent, even under intense interrogation, and remained consistent over the course of a decade. He always said he heard his daughter crying, woke up, tried to get his children but couldn’t, and exited the house.

• On one fact, Willingham changed his story. He admitted that he exaggerated having gone inside the babies’ room (he said he wanted to sound brave and feared that people would think he was a coward for not going into the burning room).

• What are now being described as Willingham’s “inconsistencies” don’t come from Willingham at all – they are recollections from hearsay witnesses, virtually none of whom testified at trial or were cross-examined.

• Many of those hearsay witnesses’ statements evolved and hardened once they knew Willingham was a suspect in the case.

Myth:

Willingham didn’t try to save his children (his wounds were superficial, he stood outside while the house burned, he moved his car, etc).

Facts:

• Authorities had to restrain Willingham from going back into the house.

• Scientific experts have conducted experiments with identical fires and Willingham’s burns are normal for this type of fire.

• When Willingham exited his bedroom, the hallway was not yet on fire; the fire was contained in the children’s bedroom. In recreations with rooms involved in intense fires, experts can safely stand by a door seconds before flashover, and Willingham could have stood close to the children’s room without being harmed.

• Willingham explained that he moved his car because he was afraid fuel in the car would cause the fire to get much worse.

Myth:

There is credible and reliable new information that Willingham confessed to his ex-wife.

Facts:

• About Willingham’s ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, even John Jackson (who prosecuted Willingham and steadfastly believes he was guilty) says: “She’s given very different stories about what happened on this particular day right up to the date of his execution…It’s hard for me to make heads or tails of anything she said or didn’t say.”

• In 2004, Stacy Kuykendall told the Chicago Tribune that he never confessed, and she said the same to The New Yorker in 2009.

• Details in Stacy Kuykendall recent statements contradict what she said in multiple statements to law enforcement authorities, letters to Willingham and attorneys, and under oath at his trial. (For example, she now claims the couple fought the night before the fire, but she clearly said the opposite in various official statements over the years.)

• Stacy Kuykendall visited Willingham shortly before the execution, which is when he supposedly confessed. In fact, on the same day that her brother claimed she had told him Willingham confessed in that meeting, a local media outlet ran an interview with Stacy Kuykendall where she said Willingham maintained his innocence during the meeting (even though she thought he was guilty). Also, Stacy Kuykendall now claims that he confessed in the same conversation that he asked her to help with his clemency bid.

Myth:

The Texas Forensic Science Commission is going to determine whether Willingham was innocent.

Facts:

• The commission was never asked to determine whether Willingham was innocent, and was never going to reach a conclusion on his innocence.

• The commission is determining whether the forensic analysis in the Willingham case was valid and, by extension, is also considering whether similar arson cases may have been tainted by faulty forensic evidence. It is also tasked with determining what corrective action, if any, is needed to ensure that forensic analysis in cases like this is reliable.

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  1. Cindy Beaudette says:

    Sad when people can’t just tell the truth. Our justice system has become who can twist a believable story, not the truth. Why is it turned into a competition between lawyers. They don’t care if the person is indeed telling the truth. Any one can make a story seem real. Or try to make you believe them just because a movie made THEM look bad. We are evil when it comes to justice.

  2. Al Haynes says:

    I just watched Trial by Fire movie and am touched and saddened by the truth. Such a sad story! Even sadder that it really happened, that we live in a world where men’s egos prevent them from facing the truth and admitting they are wrong. The justice system is wrong when one man can decide the fate of another for political reasons (yes I’m talking to Governor Parry here). Such a shame that all the experts got it wrong in this case and their arrogance not to come forward and admit their mistakes year after they would have realised they fucked up. I’ve also followed the story of Steven Avery and believe regardless of whether innocent or not, he was also dealt a huge injustice.
    I feel so sad for all involved and Todd’s wife who seemed to be in so much fear of public opinion, her family’s opinions that she felt she had to speak out against her husband, changed her story many times and now has to live with the consequences. Laura Derns character was very touching and she has also paid a huge price for her involvement emotionally and physically and she has to be commended for her strength and faith in Todd.

    We see injustices happen every day in America particularly in regards to black men. The truth is all lives matter black white or brindle and law enforcement officers and actions taken are just a reflection of our society’s failures. I live in Australia and have experiences police lies and injustices and in some cases only their incompetence and failure to be certain of their fabricated evidence has caused them to lose cases and be strongly rebuked by the trial magistrates. However, obviously, many times they are more conniving and get away with this false evidence in and see a prosecution. I’m sure most of them do it because they believe the person on trial is guilty. However, this circumvents and degrades our legal system and unfortunately anything that involves human emotions is inconsistent and subject to human error. Add the media who go for the ride for headlines and the general public who lap it up in tabloids and gossip magazines and we have trial by media.

    The USA spreads the notion they are the good guys and the police of the world. They justify all kinds of heinous actions such as starting wars etc by saying they are ridding the world of bad people. Unfortunately, the people involved are no better than the average person, who’s judgement can be sometimes wrong, only their actions can affect the lives of innocent people. Sure many countries around the world commit atrocities and social justice crimes such as China, the Arab nations South Africa etc etc. However, we cannot pretend that we are all at fault as human beings for our nature of following the pack and not speaking out or admitting our own faults or incompetence.

    I can only hope that somehow things get better someday.

    Thankyou for doing the good work you do. Everyone deserves a fair trial and opportunities beyond reasonable doubt to prove their innocence. Those who enforce the law have the highest obligation to ensure this happens. Those who don’t will have to live with the guilt of doing the wrong thing – even if the believe they were helping justice by giving it a nudge.

    Again, so sad that people’s rights are abused in this way. We all need to speak out and make our government and public officials more accountable. We all need to think twice before we cast aspersions against anyone without knowing the whole story.

    Bob Dylan’s the story of the Hurricane song is about 50 years old and still nothing has changed. In general, poor people and minorities are persecuted. Racial prejudice is rife and seems to be getting worse – not better in our societies.
    Words from my heart
    Al

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