Tribpedia: Cameron Todd Willingham

Cameron Todd Willingham was a Corsicana man executed by Texas in 2004, after a jury convicted him of setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three young daughters. He insisted on his innocence until his execution and refused to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

In 2006, the non-profit Innocence Project presented evidence to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, concluding that "expert arson analysis shows an innocent man was executed." The commission agreed to investigate the complaint in 2008. In 2009, the New Yorker profiled the case and brought national scrutiny to a report from Craig Beyler, a nationally regarded fire science expert. Beyler's report said that the original case was built on faulty evidence.

Beyler was set to testify at an October 2, 2009, hearing about his report, but two days before the hearing, Gov. Rick Perry replaced the chairman and two members of the state panel — all of whom had terms that expired in September 2009. The new chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, canceled the hearing and did not reschedule it. The outgoing chairman, Sam Bassett, expressed disappointment that the hearing was canceled and that his appointment was not renewed.

Under Bradley's watch, the commission shifted from meeting on a two-month to a three-month basis and appointed a four-person subcommittee to handle its internal deliberations of the Willingham case, whose meetings have not been public. (The subcommittee's meetings do not fall under the Open Meetings Act because it does not form a quorum of the agency's total members).

Commission members have also questioned the basis of Beyler's report, saying it did not properly detail the contemporary standard of practice for fire investigations in Texas, and focused on publications and research, rather than manuals or materials the investigators would have been able to access.  It's not fair, Bradley has said, "to go back in time to create some academic, theoretical standard based on academic documents," and pass judgement on an investigator who "was doing what he was taught at the time."

Perry was governor when Willingham was executed. Before the execution, Willingham’s lawyer asked Perry to grant a stay based on a report from Dr. Gerald Hurst, a leading fire expert. Hurst concluded that “there is not a single item of physical evidence in this case which supports a finding of arson.” Willingham’s request was denied.

In more recent years, Perry has openly questioned the new reports concluding Willingham was innocent. He called national arson investigators "latter day supposed experts" in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.


September 17, 2010 - (l-r) Judy Willingham Cavner and Eugenia Willingham, both relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham, attend the Texas Forensic Science Commission meeting on September 17, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters. Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

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