In episode 3 we discuss Cameron Todd Willingham who was tried and convicted for the murder of his three daughters in Corsicana, Texas. If you enjoy this episode please visit our website bowtofate.com to stay up to date with current events and episodes.
Hello and thanks for listening to Bow to Fate- a podcast focusing on true crime with an emphasis on the flaws in our justice system.
For this episode we are going to be talking about Cameron Todd Willingham who was tried and convicted for the murder of his three daughters in Corsicana, Texas.
On December 23, 1991, the young Willingham family was getting ready for the holidays. The small family was just starting out and often endured financial struggles, Todd was a mechanic, but at the time was out of work and had taken on the responsibility of caring for the children. His wife, Stacy, was the sole wage earner. She worked part time as a bartender at her brother’s bar. That morning Stacy went out to buy Christmas gifts at the Salvation Army leaving Todd at home with their three daughters:
Amber Louise: two years old
and twin one year old daughters
Karmon Diane and
Todd and his daughters were all lying down for a when his worst nightmare came to life. Todd says that he was awoken by cries for help by his two year old daughter, Amber, when he opened his eyes the home was filled with smoke and he couldn’t find his children he had no choice but to escape out the front door. Buffie Barbie, an eleven year old girl playing outside just down the street said she smelled the smoke and ran inside to tell her mother. Diane Barbie rushed out the door towards the smoke and found Willingham standing outside his house wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest covered in soot and his hair singed. She described a chaotic scene as Willingham was screaming at her that his children were still inside and begging her to call the fire department.
While Diane Barbe rushed back to her home to call for help, Willingham found a stick to break the windows in his home in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to reach his children. He successfully broke two windows but his reward was only to exacerbate the fire with the introduction of fresh air the holes from the broken windows shot out flames making it impossible for Willingham to get in. He finally retreated to the front yard falling to his knees in defeat and making one final cry for his children before falling silent.
Diane could feel the heat radiating off the one story home and moments later she recalled five of the windows of what was the children’s bedroom exploding followed by flames blowing out from the home.
Within minutes the Corsicana fire department arrived, Willingham ran to them desperately telling them that his three babies were still in their bedroom where the flames were the thickest. Several firefighters attempted to make entry but the flames and smoke were growing significantly now. Finally a firefighter made his way through and emerged with 2 year old Amber cradled in his arms. As fire rescue workers began CPR on the little girl Willingham ran to her and then turned and once again attempted to run into the home to reach his twin daughters. Two firefighters had to restrain him and he was eventually placed in handcuffs for his own protection. One firefighter later said that based on what he was seeing and how the fire was burning it would have been crazy for anyone to try and enter the home.
Willingham was taken to the hospital to be treated for his injuries, it was there that he was told that his two year old daughter had died of smoke inhalation, her body had been found in the master bedroom, where he was sleeping. His 1 year old twins had also died in their bedroom lying on the floor, their bodies had been so severely burned they were unrecognizable, but a medical examiner later determined that they too had died of smoke inhalation.
Here is a clip from a news interview with Stacy and Todd Willingham following the fire.
If we have learned anything from previous episodes it is how important your actions in the days, weeks, or even hours following a catastrophic incident such as this. Public opinion is important, whether we choose to believe it or not. Your actions are always being judged by those around you that have a predisposed opinion that every person should grieve the same.
Willingham’s actions following the fire where not in line with how the people of Corsicana felt he should be acting. We will never know for sure if his actions affected the fire investigation. I am in no way trying to place blame on the police department or fire department that investigated this tragedy. I only want to point out that we are only human no one is perfect and the way you judge facts ultimately depends on the current events surrounding you, it is easy to distort facts when you have a feeling that something just isn’t right
Around town, Willingham was seen as a troublemaker and there had been several incidents of reported domestic violence against his wife. Willingham listened to heavy metal music and fire investigators found in his utility room posters from the bands Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden, which had images of the satan and depicted the sign of the devil. Willingham was also having an affair with a next door neighbor while his wife was working to support their family. All these things coupled together painted a not so pleasant picture of Willingham. His wife however, stood by him through the gossip professing that he was a loving father and would never do anything to harm his children.
The day after the fire Todd, Stacy, and some friends returned to the burned out home, a next door neighbor who had not witnessed the fire watched them from his front door. He said they were smiling, laughing, and generally looked to be having a good time. He called the police because he felt they were not acting in accordance to the previous day’s events. When police arrived the mood within the group changed. Willingham reportedly stated that he was looking for a dartboard that he hoped had survived the fire.
Despite the growing concern, the community came together and started to take up a collection for the family. A benefit was held at a local bar to help pay for burial costs. During the benefit, Todd saw a new set of darts that he wanted, he attempted to buy the set from the owner with the money received from the community to bury his children. The bar owner, reportedly disgusted by the incident, just gave the set to Todd. So you can begin to see here that Todd was not exacting helping his public image.
Enter onto the scene Doug Fogg, the assistant fire chief and Corsicana arson investigator. Along with Deputy Fire Marshal, Manuel Vasquez, one of the state’s leading arson investigators they entered the home four days after the fire.
Before we get started on what they found, I believe it is important to let you all know that in 1991 fire investigation was not exactly a science. You had to take a short course to become a certified arson investigator, but it did not require any prerequisite education or experience. Arson investigation was really more of an art, backed up by gut feelings and relying on the experience of others than a real scientific investigation.
So Fogg and Vasquez enter the home. They follow the path of the fire starting at the least affected area. They note in the kitchen that the back door is blocked by a refrigerator, removing one path for a possible escape. They move past the utility room making note of the what they describe as satanic posters and move to the master bedroom. They determine that the fire did not begin here either as most of the damaged appeared to be from smoke. So they start down a hallway, they move some of the clutter and make note that along the baseboards there appears to be deep charring from which they deduce the fire burned very low as opposed to up higher along the ceiling where a typical fire would have burned. They found patterns in the floor which they call puddles. They follow the burn pattern to the children’s bedroom.
As they enter Fogg notices a piece of glass from a broken window. He identifies the break pattern as Crazed glass. From his studies he believes that this means that the fire had burned quickly with intense heat leaving only the conclusion that it was cause by a liquid accelerate. The also review the children’s mattresses the springs had turned white from the heat and they make the supposition that an intense heat was focused under the beds. They find pour patterns and even note one that may be in the shape of a pentagram. The floor has deep burns and Vasquez decided this meant the floor was hotter than the ceiling. He later says this was not normal because heat rises meaning the ceiling should have taken the brunt of the fire.
As they move out of the bedroom towards the front door they find another curious incident. The aluminum threshold was charred and just outside the door on the porch they find a brown stain consistent with the presence of an accelerant. They take meticulous notes and pictures documenting the arson investigation. When they are finished Vasquez has identified three separate places where the fire originated: the hallway, the children’s bedroom, and the front porch. They also believe they have conclusive evidence that the fire was intentionally set and was not accidental.
Both men took samples from the home and send them to the lab, on the samples taken from the front porch they find evidence of a substance often found in charcoal lighter fluid. They missed the fact that they were on a concrete porch that had a charcoal grill on it. They did not find the substance on any other samples sent to the lab. An unbiased investigator should have been able to make the assumption that the lighter fluid found on the porch was from a burned bottle of fluid found next to the grill, but as I stated we are only human, and these men had heard the stories around town and now they had what they believed to be evidence of a triple homicide. Willingham quickly became the prime suspect in the murder of his infant children.
Todd then makes another error in judgement, he once again shows up to the home when he heard investigators were on scene. He sees them looking at the deep charring down the hallway, and provides an explanation. He tells Vasquez and Fogg that Amber liked the smell of his cologne and had poured an entire bottle out in the hallway. Todd knew that he was being looked at and wanted to help investigators but this strange encounter only helped to further solidify him as a suspect.
The community that once mourned with the young family were now being interviewed by police and their accounts quickly became drastically different than they were the day of the fire, by this time word of the investigation and police leads were spreading around town. Diane Barbee who on the day of the fire had describe Willingham as inconsolable and described multiple attempts by him trying to enter the home. Now said that she did not see him try to get into the house until the authorities arrived and to top it off he seemed more interested in saving his car, which she said he moved from the driveway as the children burned. Other neighbors who said Willingham was distraught and calling out for his children had changed their tunes as well now stating that he did not appear concerned in the slightest.
It was not long before the police brought Willingham in for questioning. He recounted his story of waking up to a home filled with smoke and making his escape. He said that he had tried to find the children and even thought that he had found a baby once but it was only a doll. He said that the fire was too hot and he had no choice but to flee the home. When asked if he or the children had any enemies he emphatically responded no. Vasquez asked Willingham if he had put on shoes before retreating from the house. Willingham confirmed that he had not, he had exited the home bare footed. This strange question sealed Willingham’s guilt in the eyes of Vasquez. From the burn patterns of the home, Vasquez and Fogg believed the fire burned low and they would have meant if barefoot Willingham would have sustained serious burns to his feet. They had already confirmed with the hospital that this was not the case. Willingham had not described jumping over flames or avoiding any fire, he had only talked about the smoke and intense heat, both investigators believed they had their man. Listen to investigators in their own words from the Frontline episode Death by fire..
As you can hear they believe he killed his children but what they could not tie down was a motive for the murder, there was no financial gain, though the children’s grandfather did have very small insurance policies on all the kids neither Todd or Stacy where the beneficiaries. Investigators finally settled on the fact that the children interfered with Todd’s drinking and darts describing Todd as a sociopath that wanted his children out of the way.
On January 8, 1992 as Willingham and Stacy were driving they were forced off the road by the swat team who took Todd into custody for the murder of his three children. Because there were multiple victims in the crime, Willingham would automatically be eligible for the death penalty.
Due to his financial status, Willingham could not afford an attorney. He was assigned two court appointed attorneys to handle his case. David Martin was a former state trooper turned attorney and Robert Dunn a local attorney who represented every kind of case in the county from petty theft to divorce and now murder charges. Both men believed Willingham was guilty from the get-go. Here are some snipets from the AC360 interview from 2009 with David Martin and Anderson Cooper..
So that was one of the men representing Todd, doesn’t give you a whole lot of confidence in our current justice system does it?
The trial was set to begin in August of 1992, the prosecutor assigned was a man named John Jackson, prior to the case he was not a proponent of the death penalty at one time making a statement to the effect that it would mean no recourse if at a later date someone had made a mistake. Jackson followed the lead of his boss in this case due to the heinous nature of the crime and pushed forward with the death penalty.
Willingham’s wife Stacy stayed by his side through his arrest and trial reiterating that he was a fantastic father who desperately loved his children. Other members of her family did not feel the same, they pleaded with Jackson to offer a deal to Willingham to avoid the heartbreak of a trial. Jackson listened to their concerns. He went to Willingham’s defense team and offered life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in exchange for a guilty plea. Both Martin and Dunn were ecstatic. They went to Willingham with the deal and were completely shell shocked when he refused to plead guilty for something he said he did not do. They begged him to accept even bringing in his mother and step-father in a last ditch effort to get him to accept. Willingham stood strong, insisting that he would have never killed his children. Both the prosecutor and his defense team were sure this meant that he was a sociopath that had no remorse for what he had done.
This story would not be complete without the introduction of our friendly jailhouse snitch. As many of our other cases have shown, Informants are the darlings of the prosecution’s case. This time his name is Johnny Webb, he was in the county jail with Willingham on a robbery conviction. I have pointed out before how incredibly unreliable jailhouse informants are but our justice system continues to use them. Every single time I read a case that has a jailhouse informant it is the same story. Why on earth would someone deny, deny, deny and then all the sudden just confess to someone in jail with them. Not to mention the fact that they always have something to gain, the fact that juries give any credence to these people still shocks me. This jailhouse informant is especially concerning because he was not actually in the same cell with Willingham, instead he was walking by and supposedly Willingham just called him over and confessed to him through the food slot.
According to Johnny Webb, Willingham had set the fire to hide an injury or even death of one of the girls caused by his wife. When this didn’t coincide with any of the actual evidence he changed his story. At the trial Webb was astoundingly more prepared, he gave an explanation for some burns on Amber’s forehead and arm saying that Willingham had told him that he had burned his daughter with wadded up paper to make it look like they were playing with fire. Webb stated on more than one occasion that he was not being given a deal or any special circumstances in exchange for his testimony. If he had it would have been the legal duty of the prosecution to disclose this to the defense, not to mention if he had been compensated in any way, Webb’s testimony could not have been used.
Funny story though, not long after the trial was complete Webb wrote the prosecutor a letter asking him to get his robbery sentence reduced as agreed and transfer back to jail rather than prison. When it was not done, Webb recanted his testimony in another letter he wrote to the Jackson. A short while after that his sentence was reduced and he was released from prison at which point he recanted his recantation. Willingham’s attorneys were never made aware of any of this. At a later date Webb has been quoted as asking “The statute of limitation has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”
Webb wasn’t the only problem for Willingham. The prosecutor systematically laid out for the jury a picture of a man that wanted a life without children. He produced evidence of Willingham’s philandering, he brought in witnesses of his abuse towards Stacy when she was pregnant, and showed the jury pictures of the posters Willingham had up of his heavy metal bands and even said that the fire patterns found in the home were in the shape of a pentagram making the assumption that Willingham was involved in some form of devil worship.
Jackson also told the jury that the refrigerator in the home had been moved to block the back door, this was not accurate by the way, and accelerate poured down the hallway and into children’s room creating a death trap for his young girls.
Their golden egg however was evidence that the arson investigation found. Investigators Fogg and Vasquez both testified recalling their investigation and ending their testimony that neither had ever been proven wrong before. Despite the fact that no evidence of accelerate had been found inside the actual home. Both provided accounts of a man spraying accelerate down the hall and into the children’s room before lighting the blaze.
When the prosecution finished. The defense had only one witness to present. They called the Willingham’s babysitter, who had not been present at the fire and who had no knowledge of the incident. She only testified that she did not believe that Willingham could have ever harmed his children and with that the defense rested. Willingham wanted to testify on his own behalf, but his attorney’s had talked him out of it believing it would do more harm than good. Being that they only called on witness with absolutely no knowledge of the crime, I really don’t see what harm it could have done. With their one and only witness called the defense rested.
The trial had only lasted two days. It took the jury less than an hour to deliberate. On August 19, 1992 Cameron Todd Willingham was found guilty of murdering his three daughters by arson.
The sentencing phase started shortly after. Several of Todd’s family members testified and begged the jury to spare Willingham’s life. His wife Stacy took the stand and was practically attacked by the prosecutor about the significance of Todd’s tattoos, He had a skull encircled by a serpent which supposedly proved he was an awful person.
The prosecution called James P Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist. Grigson was loving known as Dr. Death as he testified so often for the prosecution in death penalty cases. A judge once said that if Dr. Death was testifying in your case you might as well write your will and get your affairs in order.
Grigson had never actually met Willingham but that didn’t stop him from making a diagnosis. Grigson stated that Willingham was an extremely serve sociopath that no pill or treatment could ever help. Grigson had used this exact same verbiage in several other cases as well. He suggested that Willingham’s tattoos and posters meant that he was beyond help and had no remorse for the crimes he had committed. He never actually talked to Willingham but was able to make a psychiatric diagnosis that would sentence him to death.
Three years after Willingham’s trial Dr. Death would be expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for violating their ethics code. The association cited Grigson’s ability to arrive at a diagnosis without examining the individual in question and for indicating while testifying as an expert witness that he could predict with 100% certainty that individuals would engage in future violent acts.
With the testimony before them and the guarantee from Dr. Death that if he was released he would 100% for sure commit another murder the jury felt that had no choice but to deliver the death penalty.
On August 21, 1992 Willingham officially became a resident of the Texas Department of Corrections and began waiting for his day to die.
Willingham filed appeal after appeal each were denied. It was not until he joined a jailhouse pen pal program started by a group that opposed the death penalty that the case really started to gain traction.
He began writing to a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert, she was a recent divorcee and Willingham’s letters spoke to her. It was not long before she agreed to visit him. She became interested in the case due to Willingham’s insistent that he was innocent. She reviewed the case files and saw some inconsistencies in the witness statements, taking note that they became damming after the police had a theory that Willingham had committed the crime. She spoke with Stacy, who still believed her now ex-husband was innocent. She poured over case files and kept talking to Willingham. She had questions and wanted them answered. One day she came across the name of an acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, Gerald Hurst. She sent him Willingham’s filed as a hail mary pass to get some answers. In January of 2004 Hurst opened the file and started to read.
Several statements made by investigators, Fogg and Vasquez jumped out at him, most notably was Vasquez’s claim that he had investigated 1200 to 1500 fires and most all of them were arson. Imagine that, investigating at least 1200 fires and quote most of them were arson, seems a bit unreal right? According to the state of Texas, of the fires investigated only about a quarter of them turn out to be arson, you can see why alarms went off for Hurst when he was reading through the transcripts.
Hurst also noted that Vasquez’s claim that the fire burned hot and fast due to liquid accelerant had been debunked as pure nonsense by several scientific experiments proving that accelerant fueled fire burns at the same temperature and speed as wood fires.
Hurst kept reading and reviewing the facts and one after another he debunked each and every piece of evidence that had convicted Cameron Todd Willingham. None of the facts provided during his trial contained any scientific evidence that the fire was arson. Hurst reviewed the damning burn patterns and puddles, he determined that they were actually a natural product of a fire during flashover. Flashover is the term used when a fire becomes so hot that the entire room erupts in flames. Hurst disproved each of the 20 points presented by Vasquez and Fogg during the trial as proof of arson.
With that he was left with the only accelerant found at the scene. We noted this earlier, but Hurst pointed out a picture that showed the charcoal grill and the burned container of lighter fluid beside the front door which obviously had melted during the fire leaking the accelerant. Without visiting the scene Hurst could not prove the fires origination point, but based on the evidence and pictures he built a model of the home and began experimenting. He was able to show that the fire was most likely caused by faulty wiring in the house and the fire should have been ruled accidental.
Listen to Hurst in his own words from PBS Frontline Death by Fire…
Hurst had definitely concluded that the fire was not arson.
On February 13, 2004 just four days before Willingham was meant to be executed the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Texas Governor, Rick Perry, were sent Hurst’s report proving Cameron Todd Willingham’s undeniable innocence.
This is the point where I would like to be able to give you all a happy ending to this story….but I cannot.
The board voted unanimously to execute, no explanation could be provided to Willingham, his supporters, or his attorneys. The board deliberates in secret, there is no requirement for them to review any materials, they vote by fax. In Texas, this is method of voting is called “death by fax.”
The innocence project confirmed that both the Governor’s office and each member of the board received Hurst’s report. But they were not bound to review it. The only logical explanation is that the Board and the Governor’s office either didn’t bother to read the report or blatantly ignored scientific evidence.
Willingham’s attorney took solace in the fact that Governor Perry could still grant a 30 day stay of execution in order to review the facts given to him. Willingham’s hope was gone, however, he began to get his affairs in order.
Willingham wrote letters to his loved ones and asked his ex-wife Stacy, who had touted his innocence this entire time if he could have his tombstone placed next to the children. Unfortunately, for the first time Stacy had read the original arson investigation and reviewed the evidence, with no knowledge of Hurst’s new report of his innocence. Stacy now believed Willingham was guilty and she denied his request. Stacy told him that he had ruined her life and took her children away from her. I am going to play you an audio clip of an interview she gave to reporters after reading the evidence against Willingham.
Stacy now fully believed Todd was guilty and as you heard she now stated that Todd confessed to her, this was a drastic change from the woman who had touted his innocence from the beginning. I have to imagine that the mind chooses to believe what it needs to in order to deal with tragedy and find a way to move on.
On February 17, 2004 Willingham had his last meal and prepared to die. The stay of execution from the Governor’s office that everyone was hoping for would not come. Willingham said goodbye to his loved ones and was taken away for lethal injection. Willingham’s final words “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return so the Earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, Road Dog.” He expressed love to someone named Gabby and then addressed his ex-wife, Stacy, who was watching about 8 feet away through a window and said several times, “I hope you rot in Hell, bitch.” He then attempted to maneuver his hand, strapped at the wrist, into the bird. Stacy showed no reaction to the outburst. His final words caused a fair amount of controversy but for a man locked up for most of his life for a crime that he did not commit and then his rock, the woman who stood by him professing his innocence right up to the end tells him she no longer believes him and then gives public interviews saying he confessed to her. If I was him I probably would have some anger towards her as well, this was a fresh cut, he didn’t have years to come to terms with her new statements, he just had a few hours. I’m choosing to give him a pass on cussing out Stacy.
Cameron Todd Willingham died a few moments later Executed by lethal injection, he was just 36 years old. His death certificate would officially read homicide as the cause of death.
The years following his execution were marred by controversy. The innocence project got involved in the case at the behest of the family and over 7 fire experts that reviewed the facts of the case and confirmed their was no scientific evidence to confirm arson.
Governor Rick Perry commissioned a scientific panel to investigate the fire, to see if Texas wrongfully executed an innocent man, unfortunately right around this time Perry was running in a tight race for President. The panel looked to be leaning towards the fact that the fire was accidental, but just 48 hours before holding the final hearing on the case and rendering a decision, Perry replaced 4 members of the committee with no explanation. The hearing was then postponed and the panel’s new chairman released a statement that they were unsure if they would continue the investigation.
On September 24, 2010 the court finally ordered the exoneration in light of overwhelming credible, and reliable evidence that the State of Texas wrongfully executed an innocent man. They found that Governor Rick Perry and the Court of Appeals willingly ignored evidence of Willingham’s innocence. Despite irrefutable proof that Texas executed an innocent man they are still leading the country in executions to this day.
I want to play you a short clip from the Republican Presidential Primary debate in 2011 that Rick Perry participated in during this time and see what you think.
So the applause at the fact that Texas executed 234 people and the fact that at least one of them was innocent. I think that says a lot about our country as a whole. Why do we react this way, are our emotions so caught up in the drama of the circumstances we aren’t even able to take a step back from the pack mentality for just a second and look at the grotesque picture we are presenting to the world.
John Jackson, the prosecutor in the Cameron Todd Willingham case is currently in some hot water regarding the incident with the jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb. It seems more and more evidence is being uncovered that he did in fact have a deal with Webb that would have discounted his testimony all together and actively participated covering up that fact.
The Cameron Todd Willingham Case is the embodiment of battle cries for anti-death penalty groups across the country. A case that had definitive proof that our justice system failed and executed an innocent man. This instance should be and is touted as the reason why we should not execute people, even if we believe their crimes are extremely heinous.
This case proves that even if we believe something to be absolutely true beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are always going to be new techniques, new strategies, new science that can change the way we think and understand the facts. The real tragedy is that there were so many stops along the way that we could have taken a step back and reviewed the information again, to make sure we got it right, but we didn’t. Our prosecutors and justice system is so fraught with the idea that they are always right, that no one is willing to admit that we are all human and as humans we make mistakes. We have a growing trend of win, and win at all costs, in our justice system, if we continue using this mentality, it becomes easy to forget or ignore that we are judging actual people and our decisions will have a real impact on not just their lives but also the lives of their families, and the victims families as well. In future episodes we are going to continue to review cases injustice so please keep listening.
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