Friday, October 30, 2009
Willingham: So many questions that refuse to go away
By EUGENIA WILLINGHAM | Special to the Star-Telegram
Nearly 18 years ago, a long nightmare began for my family. Every time we think
the truth is finally coming to light, a new twist reopens old wounds.
In 1991 my stepson, Cameron Todd Willingham, woke up to discover his Corsicana
house on fire. The events that followed have been twisted by people with their
own agenda. I am speaking out now because it is time for the truth in this
The evidence that was used to convict Todd has been discredited by experts and
witnesses. Since Todd’s execution in 2004, several independent experts have
concluded that the forensic analysis at Todd’s trial was wrong.
Gov. Rick Perry ignored an expert’s report about the evidence and refused to
delay Todd’s execution. Five years later, Perry has interfered with the Texas
Forensic Science Commission’s investigation of the case. It’s not clear when
the commission will resume its work, but our family hopes it happens soon.
Meanwhile, Perry and others – including the man who prosecuted Todd, the
defense attorney from Todd’s trial who I think defended him very poorly, and
some members of the media in Texas – have focused on Todd’s character. For
weeks, my family and I have seen reports about what a “monster” Todd was. The
truth is that Todd was sometimes difficult, and his marriage was not always a
happy one. That’s not a crime punishable by lethal injection.
When Todd was 13 months old, I married his father and we raised him together.
I found a boy who was angry and confused, but also smart and compassionate. I
helped that boy grow into a man who did everything he could to provide for his
family and fill his children’s lives with love.
Todd loved his children. We all did. I have always believed he was innocent,
even before the recent revelations about the evidence that was used against
I don’t want to walk through every detail of the evidence, but there are two
new arguments from the media and others that I want to address.
First, Todd’s ex-wife reportedly says now that he confessed to her. I don’t
believe this is true. More importantly, I don’t understand how anyone can
believe what his ex-wife says, given how much her story has changed and how
often it has changed. In my eyes, she is simply not credible after so many
versions of this story, which makes the evidence – or lack thereof – all the
Second, the fact that Todd didn’t run into a burning home is not proof that he
set the fire. He tried to go back into the house and authorities had to
restrain him. Even if that weren’t the case, human instinct prevents people
from running into fires that will kill them. We may all think we would run
into a serious fire to rescue someone, but human nature takes over in the
People are entitled to their opinions about the death penalty. But we don’t
execute people for having a bad marriage and a complicated personality.
My family has lost three beautiful little children and their loving father. We
want answers. We want to know how the justice system got so badly off-track in
Todd’s case, and we want to know how many other families have been devastated
by erroneous evidence in arson cases in Texas.
Attacking my son won’t change the troubling lack of evidence in his case, and
it won’t answer questions that refuse to go away.
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Eugenia Willingham of Ardmore, Okla., is the stepmother of Cameron Todd
/ / / / /
Friday, October 30, 2009 | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Willingham case could improve forensic analysis
By STATE SEN. RODNEY ELLIS and BARRY SCHECK
Cameron Todd Willingham’s case has captured attention across Texas and around
the nation for the last two months, raising serious questions on a number of
fronts. To some people, the case is about capital punishment; to others, it’s
about politics and transparency in state government.
But what brought the Willingham case into the spotlight – and what we cannot
lose sight of – is what it can do to ensure quality forensic analysis in
Texas’ criminal justice system.
Willingham was convicted of murder by arson in 1992 and executed in 2004. His
three young children died in a fire at the family’s Corsicana home. The
centerpiece of the case against him was the testimony of forensic analysts who
said the fire was intentionally set. Without the forensic evidence, there
would be no legitimate reason to find that a crime had occurred, and
Willingham would not have been tried or convicted.
In 2006, the Innocence Project brought the Willingham case to Texas’ Forensic
Science Commission, which the state Legislature had created a year earlier.
The Legislature created this commission to investigate allegations of
negligence or misconduct that substantially affects the integrity of forensic
analysis and recommend corrective action. The commission’s charge is
straightforward and clear, and the Willingham case fits squarely within it.
The filing that kicked off the commission’s investigation didn’t just focus on
Willingham’s case. It also included the case of Ernest Willis, who was
convicted and sentenced to death for a nearly identical crime at around the
same time – based on nearly identical forensic analysis – but was exonerated
because the forensic evidence was so flawed. The Pecos County prosecutor who
requested Willis’ exoneration determined that the arson analysis was wrong
because it relied on outdated and inaccurate forensic techniques. Willis was
determined to be “actually innocent” and was compensated by the state of
The filing also noted that thousands of Texans are convicted of arson, and
that the commission’s investigation could help determine whether accurate,
reliable forensic analysis is being used statewide. The Forensic Science
Commission voted unanimously to move forward with an investigation comparing
the Willis and Willingham cases and, by extension, determining whether there
may be broader problems with other arson convictions.
This is the kind of work the Legislature had in mind when it created the
commission. The legislation creating the commission passed in 2005, in the
midst of the Houston Police Department crime lab scandal. Many legislators
cited problems in the lab when debating whether to create the commission, and
they also made it clear that we needed an independent commission to
investigate other forensic issues that may come up.
Once it was created, the commission was slow to start its work because the
governor did not appoint members and funding was not appropriated. Earlier
this month, when the commission was well into its review of arson cases, its
work ground to a halt because Gov. Rick Perry replaced the chairman and
several members of the commission. At a hearing on Nov. 10, the new chairman
will update the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee on his plans for
continuing the commission’s ongoing work.
But as we turn toward the next steps for the commission, it’s critical to
remember why the commission was created – and what the investigation of the
Willingham case and other arson cases is really about. The commission was
never investigating whether an innocent man had been executed; that’s not its
role. Instead, the commission is trying to determine whether the forensic
analysts in the Willingham case negligently used unreliable methods, whether
there are other past cases where unreliable arson analysis was employed, and
what, if any, corrective action should be taken.
Central to the commission’s review is the fact that forensic experts should
have known before Willingham’s trial that the techniques they were using to
determine whether the fire was arson were no longer standard practice. The
National Fire Protection Association had issued guidelines several months
before the trial that directly contradicted the analysis the experts used. In
short, the “new” science that shows why the arson analysis in Willingham’s
case was flawed wasn’t new at all, and this critical evidence should have been
brought to the attention of courts and prosecutors long before the
eleventh-hour efforts that preceded Willingham’s execution.
By looking at how outdated science was used in the Willis and Willingham
cases, the Forensic Science Commission can determine how often this might have
happened in other cases – and how we can be sure it doesn’t happen in the
future. That’s not a political consideration or a mechanism for reviewing the
death penalty. It’s a critical safeguard for ensuring that our system of
justice is accurate and reliable. It’s what the state Legislature wanted when
it created this commission, and it’s what we must ensure the commission can
- – - – -
Ellis, D-Houston, represents State Senate District 13; Scheck is co-founder
and co-director of the Innocence Project.
Source: “StandDown Texas Project” group