AUSTIN, Texas--()--Twenty years after Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young daughters and eight years after his execution, his surviving relatives filed a petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles today seeking a posthumous pardon based on mounting evidence of his innocence.
“The Board of Pardons and Paroles is up for sunset review this coming legislative session, and we hope the legislature will use this opportunity to make improvements so that there is meaningful review, especially in cases where there is evidence of innocence.”
“It was Todd’s last wish that we help to clear his name. We owe that to Todd and to all the other people who might have been convicted based on the same faulty evidence,” said Eugenia Willingham, Willingham’s stepmother. Patricia Willingham Cox, Willingham’s cousin added, “We weren’t able to save Todd’s life, but thanks to the help of many of the nation’s renowned arson experts who reviewed the evidence in his case, we now know that Todd was wrongly convicted. It’s time for the state to own up to its mistake and give Todd the justice he deserves.”
Willingham and his three daughters were at their home in Corsicana when it burned to the ground on the morning of December 23, 1991. He managed to escape, but his children did not survive. Despite consistently maintaining his innocence, he was convicted of arson murder in 1992 based largely on the testimony of the Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg and the Texas Fire Marshal Manuel R. Vasquez who testified that there was evidence that the fire had been intentionally set. The only other evidence linking Willingham to the fire was the testimony of a jailhouse informant Johnny Webb who claimed that Willingham told him within earshot of several law enforcement employees that he committed the crime to protect his wife who had injured or killed one of the children the night before.
In the days leading up to Willingham’s execution, his attorneys sent Governor Rick Perry 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 in advance of his execution date. Yet despite Hurst's report, Willingham was executed and pronounced dead on February 17, 2004 at 6:20 p.m.
“The clemency process is supposed to be the safety net that prevents innocent people from being executed, but as this case tragically illustrates, the clemency process typically doesn’t work even when there is compelling evidence of innocence,” said Gerry Goldstein of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley. “The Board of Pardons and Paroles is up for sunset review this coming legislative session, and we hope the legislature will use this opportunity to make improvements so that there is meaningful review, especially in cases where there is evidence of innocence.”
After his execution, the Innocence Project asked the then newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate both Willingham’s case and the case of Ernest Willis, who was convicted based on similarly flawed evidence but later exonerated of the arson murder that put him on death row. During the course of that multi-year investigation, nine of the nation’s leading arson scientists reviewed the evidence in the Willingham case and all agreed that the original testimony of the fire investigators was based on outdated arson science. A summary of these findings is available at www.innocenceproject.org/willingham. Although the Commission was ultimately barred by the Texas Attorney General from making a finding on whether the state was negligent in the execution of Willingham, the Commission acknowledged that unreliable arson science facilitated Willingham’s conviction and recommended that the state conduct a review to determine if there are other people in Texas prisons who were wrongly convicted based on bad arson science.
“The Commission’s report explicitly identifies the universally recognized unreliability of all of the arson evidence used to convict Mr. Willingham,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “Had the facts about the legitimacy of the arson science been appreciated by the criminal justice system at any point from the investigation to Mr. Willingham’s execution – as it had been in Mr. Willis’ case – he too would likely have been exonerated and compensated on grounds of actual innocence instead of being executed.”
Five years after jailhouse informant Johnny Webb testified against Willingham, the Navarro County prosecutor who convicted Willingham urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Webb parole for the 15 year sentence he was serving for robbery and forgery. The prosecutor claimed that he was helping Webb because he had been targeted by the Aryan Brotherhood. In March 2000, Webb submitted a motion to recant his testimony in the form of a handwritten letter to the Navarro County District Attorney's Office asking that his testimony against Willingham "be made null and void" because he was pressured by officials to lie. According to the article “Trial by Fire,” in the New Yorker, when the author David Grann questioned Webb about his recantation, Webb said, “It’s very possible I misunderstood what he said.” He also asked the author, “The statue of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”
In 2010, Judge Charlie Baird conducted a hearing to determine whether there was evidence to convene a “Court of Inquiry” to investigate whether the state wrongly executed Willingham, but he was barred from releasing his opinion on procedural grounds by a Texas appeals court. Earlier this year, however, Baird, who is no longer on the bench, released to the press a draft of his opinion where he found that "[g]iven the compelling and overwhelming evidence presented . . . it is clear that the State of Texas wrongfully executed Cameron Todd Willingham.”
“We are proud to have been able to offer the resources of a large law firm to support the vision and dedication of the Innocence Project, which has so firmly established Mr. Willingham's innocence,” said Robert Ward of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP.
Former Texas Governor Mark White added, “As a governor who secured the execution of many people as Attorney General and who approved the execution of many others as governor, this case and too many others like it have taught me that the state needs much greater safeguards if we are going to continue to employ the death penalty.”
A copy of the petition filed today, a summary of the scientific reports and a timeline of the case is available at www.innocenceproject.org/willingham.
In addition to Goldstein and Ward, the lawyers representing Willingham’s family include Cynthia Orr of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley, Barry Scheck, Co-Director, and Bryce Benjet, Staff Attorney, of the Innocence Project; Daniel Greenberg and Michael Vogel of Schulte Roth & Zabel, and Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service.