Cameron Todd Willingham was a family man. He loved his wife and his children and he worked hard. When his Texas home caught fire one night, neighbors reported seeing him frantically running in and out of the house trying to save his family. He was heard shouting “my babies are in there, my babies!”, and was scorched running in and out of the flaming house. Unfortunately, the heat overcame him and he was not able to save his children and they died in the fire.
Investigators found evidence of what was then known as “spidering” on the glass in the house, a web-like cracking of glass that is often associated with the use of an accelerant, like gasoline. Police noted some inconsistencies in Willingham’s account of the incident and apparently gave little weight to the hysteria of the moments that led to Willingham’s confused statements. Prosecutors charged Willingham with arson and murder and he was convicted by a jury. Throughout the entire proceeding he maintained his innocence and insisted he had nothing to do with the fire that killed his family. Based on this conviction, Willingham was sentenced to death row in Texas.
When the Innocence Project got involved they brought in nationally renowned arson experts from around the country who disputed the findings of the original “expert” who testified at trial. The most astonishing finding of the outside experts was that the so-called “spidering” effect is often caused by the application of cold water to hot glass which, of course, is exactly what happens when fire trucks arrive at a house fire and attempt to douse it with water. The consensus among the experts was that there was “no scientific foundation” for a finding of arson. This conclusion essentially refuted the only significant evidence against Willingham and left experts to conclude that Willingham was factually innocent.
Unfortunately, this finding did not help Cameron Todd Willingham because it came *after* the State of Texas executed him for a crime he did not commit. Willingham continued to insist that he was innocent up to the day that he died, announcing at his execution that “Today the State of Texas is executing an innocent man”.
When you hear about executions like the ugly and failed attempt in Oklahoma last week, keep in mind that the mistakes we make are not just in the methods we use to kill prisoners, but sometimes in the very process we use to determine their guilt. And whether you know it or not, the fact is, innocent people ARE convicted more often than you think and, in some cases, put to death, for crimes they did not commit. Think about that for a minute and about all the cases the Innocence Project has not been able to investigate.
Read more about the facts and the mythology of the Cameron Todd Willingham case here.