In 1991, a tragic fire burned down a house in Corsicana, Texas, and killed three children. Cameron Todd Willingham, the father of the kids, was quickly found guilty in the aftermath and was executed for the crime in 2004. His death was one of the most controversial US death penalty cases in history. In the years leading up to his execution, and even after, evidence has been mounting that addresses a pressing question: was Cameron Todd Willingham really guilty?
There is plenty of evidence that points toward Willingham being innocent. From weird witness testimonies to a jailhouse snitch who got a secret deal, there are many factors that make Willingham's guilt questionable. In the minds of many, all of the unearthed evidence over the years shows that Texas killed an innocent man for what may very well have been an accident. Even Cameron Todd Willingham's last words proclaimed his innocence, and he's certainly not the first person to be potentially falsely accused. Read on below to discover the disturbing facts that make Willingham's guilt questionable.
Fallacious Psychiatric Testimony Was Given
During the trial, prosecutors built the case that Willingham was a sociopath on the testimony of two so-called "experts." One, Tim Gregory, was a family therapist who was a hunting buddy of the assistant district attorney. He testified that the heavy metal band posters with skulls on it showed that Willingham was an unhinged mad man.
James P. Grigson was the second mental health expert - a "forensic psychiatrist." He testified that Willingham was a "extremely severe sociopath." Within three years of the trial, he was actually disqualified from the American Psychiatric Association for making diagnoses without even examining his patients! It was with these two ridiculously unreliable testimonies that the prosecutor attacked Willingham - and won.
A Made-Up Confession Is Revealed
Prior to the trial, Cameron Todd Willingham insisted that he was innocent and never wavered from his story that the fire was an accident. Despite that, prosecutors claim he admitted to fellow inmate at the time, Johnny Webb, that he started the fire. Webb was a troubled young man facing charges for robbery.
11 years after Willingham's execution, Johnny Webb made a startling admission in 2015. He told the Marshall Project, an organization that works to free people who are falsely convicted, that prosecutor John Jackson threatened to give him a life sentence for a crime if he did not provide false testimony against Willingham. Webb also said that he was later granted parole for his statement and given $1,000 by a local businessman at the request of Jackson. Far from an open-and-shut case, the prosecution actively sought a false statement to put an innocent man to death and found the perfect source for their scheme in Johnny Webb.
The Governor Never Acted On Evidence Presented To His Office
In the days leading up to Willingham's execution, a report detailing the faulty evidence used to convict him was delivered to Texas Governor Rick Perry. The report could have justified the governor issuing a last-minute pardon, but Willingham was executed anyway. It is unclear if Perry ever examined the report, but in the years after the execution, he seemed to delay an investigation into the case. In 2009, two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to receive the testimony of arson expert Craig Beyler regarding Willingham's case, Perry dismissed the chairman and other members saying their terms had ended months earlier.
Evidence That Someone Started The Fire Was Inaccurate
A key piece of evidence in the case was what investigators called a "pour pattern," or the mark left by flammable liquid after it is burned when used as an accelerant in an arson. Dr. Gerald Hurst, who compiled a report questioning the evidence from the fire in the case, says that pour patterns are bogus and points to experiments where a fire set without the use of accelerants results in the same pattern.
A similar assertion revolved around the concept of a "flashover." A flashover is when a fire burns so hot in one area of a house that at some point, the heat gets so great that it ignites everything in the home at the same time. Investigators long thought that only flammable materials could create the conditions for a flashover, but Dr. Hurst says conventional fires also burn hot enough to cause the phenomena. Furthermore, only a positive laboratory test for the physical presence of flammable liquid can prove that it was used to start a fire. Evidence of a flashover is not enough to prove an accelerant was used. Unfortunately, Willingham's case didn't utilize a lab test to see if flammable liquid was used at the house.