Cameron Todd Willingham: Wrongfully Convicted and Executed in Texas
09.13.10 By Innocence Staff
UPDATE (5/1/2023): Please note that certain links are greyed out because they are no longer working.
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).
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
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.
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.
Resources in the case are below, along with background on the role of unvalidated forensics in wrongful convictions.
Key Reports and Documents:
- 2011: Final Texas Forensic Science Commission report on Willingham / Willis cases (Addendum)
- 2010: John Lentini presentation at Court of Inquiry hearing
- 2010: Court of Inquiry Petition by Eugenia Willingham and Patricia Willingham Cox
- 2009: Report of Craig Beyler to the Texas Forensic Science Commission
- 2009: New Yorker investigation — Trial by Fire
- 2008: Innocence Project Letter to TFSC
- 2006: Expert Panel Report on Willingham and Willis convictions
- 2006: Innocence Project Filing to Texas Forensic Science Commission
- 2004: Gerald Hurst Report on Willingham Arson Investigation
- 2004: Hurst report on Ernest Willis arson investigation
- 2004: Chicago Tribune Investigation — Man Executed on Disproved Forensics
- Documents Obtained from Texas via Open Records Act (PDF)
Innocence Project Press Releases:
- 07/21/10: Texas Forensic Science Commission Set to Discuss Willingham Case and Arson Convictions Statewide
- 10/22/09: 400 People from 120 Texas Towns – Including 15 Exonerated with DNA Testing – Urge State Panel to Continue Willingham Probe
- 8/31/09: New Report Shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, Executed in Texas in 2004, Was Innocent
- 5/2/06: Innocence Project Submits Two Arson Cases to Texas Commission and Requests System-Wide Review
Selected Press Coverage and Multimedia:
- Austin American-Statesman: Thanks to Willingham Inquiry, Old Cases Getting New Look (9/10/11)
- Texas Tribune: Forensic Panel Calls for Review of Past Arson Cases (9/9/11)
- CNN: Perry ‘Squashed’ Texas Execution Probe, Ex-Official Says 9/8/11)
- Texas Tribune: Advocates Urge Panel to Continue Willingham Probe (9/8/11)
- Texas Tribune: Sam Bassett, the Texas Tribune Interview (Video) (9/8/11)
- Huffington Post: Rick Perry’s Role Deserves Scrutiny (9/2/11)
- Houston Chonicle Op-Ed by Barry Scheck: Forensic Science Commission Still Has Work To Do (08/14/11)
- Dallas Morning News Editorial: Forensic Panel Should Be Aggressive, Despite AG Opinion (08/03/11)
- Houston Chronicle: Forensic Panel Off Willingham Case, Attorney General Says (08/29/11)
- Texas Tribune: New Leader for Inquiry Into Forensic Evidence (7/22/11)
- KXAN: Bradley Out As Texas Forensic Panel Head (05/26/11)
- Associated Press: Texas Forensic Panel Adopts Arson Recommendations (04/15/11)
- Dallas Morning News: Texas Forensic Panel Delays Final Decision in Willingham Arson Case (1/21/11)
- Houston Chronicle, Column by Rick Casey: Willingham: Scientists vs. Lawyers (01/09/11)
- Austin American Statesman: Arson Experts Testify Investigation Violated Standards (01/07/11)
- CNN: Fire Expert Criticizes Investigation That Led to Execution(01/07/11)
- Associated Press: Texas Prosecutor Denies Showing Bias in Arson Case (10/18/10)
- The Dallas Morning News: Forensic Panel Criticized Their Leader for Calling Willingham ‘a Guilty Monster’ (10/16/10)
- The New York Times: Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions (10/15/10)
- Texas Observer: At Willingham Hearing, Science Finally Takes Center Stage (10/15/10)
- The Wall Street Journal law blog: Texas Reopens Case of Man Executed For Arson, Murder(10/15/10)
- Austin American-Statesman: Appellate Court Orders Halt to Willingham Inquiry (10/14/10)
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Court blocks ruling in death-penalty inquiry (10/14/10)
- Newsweek: Injustice, Texas Style (10/09/10)
- Texas Tribune: Forensic Commissioners Push Back Against Bradley (9/20/10)
- Texas Tribune: Forensic Science Commission Takes Up Willingham (9/17/10)
- Dallas Morning News Blog: Bradley loses, Forensics Panel Will Call Experts (9/17/10)
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram: State panel declines to clear investigators in Willingham case (9/17/10)
- Associated Press: Texas Panel Unwilling to End inquiry in arson case (9/17/10)
- KERA Public TV and Radio for North Texas: Panel Unwilling To End Arson Inquiry & Midday Roundup (9/17/10)
- Dallas Morning News Blog: Looks Like Forensics Chair Bradley Will Lose Battle (9/17/10)
- Associated Press: Texas Panel Goes Into Closed Session in Arson Case (9/17/10)
- Dallas Morning News: State Forensic Hearing on Cameron Todd Willingham Arson Case Goes Behind Closed Doors (9/17/10)
- Associated Press: Texas Inquiry into Disputed Arson Case Could End (9/17/10)
- Houston Chronicle (op-ed): Panel Must Clear the Air in Arson Case Investigation (9/17/10)
- Austin American-Statesman: State Forensic Science Commission Takes up Arson Case Again (9/17/10)
- Austin Chronicle: Fire Marshals Stand by Original Arson Report (9/16/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Arson Panel’s Draft Report Blasted (9/16/10)
- Dallas Morning News: Editorial: Forensics Panel Should Hear Experts (9/16/10)
- Associated Press: Lawmakers Criticize Panel’s Arson Investigation (9/14/10)
- Associated Press: Texas Panel Ready to End Disputed Arson Inquiry (9/14/10)
- San Antonio Express: A Matter of Life and Death in Texas (9/14/10)
- Reason Magazine: The Case for Bifurcated Trial (09/13/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Forensic Revolt Again Is In Order (09/12/10)
- Austin American-Statesman: Fire Marshal Backs Arson Finding (09/09/10)
- Corsicana Daily Sun: Willingham Case on Science Panel’s Agenda (9/6/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Finding Ways to Reduce Wrongful Convictions (9/4/10)
- Burnt Orange blog: Rick Perry Seceded from the People of Texas (08/26/10)
- Austin American-Statesman: Innocence Project Comments on Willingham Case (08/20/10)
- Austin Chronicle: Forensic Science Commission Draws Heat (08/20/10)
- CNN: Texas state board says arson investigators used flawed science (7/26/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Science Defeats DA 8-0 (7/26/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Panel Cites ‘Flawed Science’ in Arson Case (7/26/10)
- Austin American-Statesman: Commission: No negligence or misconduct by investigators in fatal fire (7/26/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Dousing a Troublesome Arson Probe (7/22/10)
- Houston Chronicle Op-Ed by Barry Scheck and Patricia Cox: Forensic Panel Must Resist Panel’s Efforts at Sabotage (7/20/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Forensic Panel Must Resist Chair’s Efforts at Sabotage (7/20/10)
- Houston Chronicle: Let’s Have a Cheer for Small Victories (5/25/10)
Background on Broader Issues:
The Just Science Coalition:
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.