The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

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Date: Sun, 6 Sep 2009 23:42:32 -0400
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire
Did Texas execute an innocent man?
by David Grann
The New Yorker
September 7, 2009

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story
wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of
Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the
walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and
tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling,
then banked downward, seeping into each room and through
crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.

Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two
houses down, was playing in her back yard when she
smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother,
Diane, and they hurried up the street; that's when they
saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham
standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of
jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and
eyelids singed. He was screaming, "My babies are burning
up!" His children-Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-
old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber-were trapped

Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department,
and while Diane raced down the street to get help he
found a stick and broke the children's bedroom window.
Fire lashed through the hole. He broke another window;
flames burst through it, too, and he retreated into the
yard, kneeling in front of the house. A neighbor later
told police that Willingham intermittently cried, "My
babies!" then fell silent, as if he had "blocked the
fire out of his mind."

Diane Barbee, returning to the scene, could feel intense
heat radiating off the house. Moments later, the five
windows of the children's room exploded and flames "blew
out," as Barbee put it. Within minutes, the first
firemen had arrived, and Willingham approached them,
shouting that his children were in their bedroom, where
the flames were thickest. A fireman sent word over his
radio for rescue teams to "step on it."

More men showed up, uncoiling hoses and aiming water at
the blaze. One fireman, who had an air tank strapped to
his back and a mask covering his face, slipped through a
window but was hit by water from a hose and had to
retreat. He then charged through the front door, into a
swirl of smoke and fire. Heading down the main corridor,
he reached the kitchen, where he saw a refrigerator
blocking the back door.

Todd Willingham, looking on, appeared to grow more
hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan
led him to the back of a fire truck and tried to calm
him down. Willingham explained that his wife, Stacy, had
gone out earlier that morning, and that he had been
jolted from sleep by Amber screaming, "Daddy! Daddy!"

"My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me
about the fire," he said, adding, "I couldn't get my
babies out."

While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house,
cradling Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, who
was twenty-three years old and powerfully built, ran to
see her, then suddenly headed toward the babies' room.
Monaghan and another man restrained him. "We had to
wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our
protection," Monaghan later told police. "I received a
black eye." One of the first firemen at the scene told
investigators that, at an earlier point, he had also
held Willingham back. "Based on what I saw on how the
fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to
try and go into the house," he said.

from the issue cartoon bank e-mail this

Willingham was taken to a hospital, where he was told
that Amber-who had actually been found in the master
bedroom-had died of smoke inhalation. Kameron and Karmon
had been lying on the floor of the children's bedroom,
their bodies severely burned. According to the medical
examiner, they, too, died from smoke inhalation.

News of the tragedy, which took place on December 23,
1991, spread through Corsicana. A small city fifty-five
miles northeast of Waco, it had once been the center of
Texas's first oil boom, but many of the wells had since
dried up, and more than a quarter of the city's twenty
thousand inhabitants had fallen into poverty. Several
stores along the main street were shuttered, giving the
place the feel of an abandoned outpost.

Willingham and his wife, who was twenty-two years old,
had virtually no money. Stacy worked in her brother's
bar, called Some Other Place, and Willingham, an
unemployed auto mechanic, had been caring for the kids.
The community took up a collection to help the
Willinghams pay for funeral arrangements.

Fire investigators, meanwhile, tried to determine the
cause of the blaze. (Willingham gave authorities
permission to search the house: "I know we might not
ever know all the answers, but I'd just like to know why
my babies were taken from me.") Douglas Fogg, who was
then the assistant fire chief in Corsicana, conducted
the initial inspection. He was tall, with a crew cut,
and his voice was raspy from years of inhaling smoke
from fires and cigarettes. He had grown up in Corsicana
and, after graduating from high school, in 1963, he had
joined the Navy, serving as a medic in Vietnam, where he
was wounded on four occasions. He was awarded a Purple
Heart each time. After he returned from Vietnam, he
became a firefighter, and by the time of the Willingham
blaze he had been battling fire-or what he calls "the
beast"-for more than twenty years, and had become a
certified arson investigator. "You learn that fire talks
to you," he told me.

He was soon joined on the case by one of the state's
leading arson sleuths, a deputy fire marshal named
Manuel Vasquez, who has since died. Short, with a
paunch, Vasquez had investigated more than twelve
hundred fires. Arson investigators have always been
considered a special breed of detective. In the 1991
movie "Backdraft," a heroic arson investigator says of
fire, "It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way
to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame
will spread this way across the door and up across the
ceiling." Vasquez, who had previously worked in Army
intelligence, had several maxims of his own. One was
"Fire does not destroy evidence-it creates it." Another
was "The fire tells the story. I am just the
interpreter." He cultivated a Sherlock Holmes-like aura
of invincibility. Once, he was asked under oath whether
he had ever been mistaken in a case. "If I have, sir, I
don't know," he responded. "It's never been pointed

Vasquez and Fogg visited the Willinghams' house four
days after the blaze. Following protocol, they moved
from the least burned areas toward the most damaged
ones. "It is a systematic method," Vasquez later
testified, adding, "I'm just collecting information. . .
. I have not made any determination. I don't have any
preconceived idea."

The men slowly toured the perimeter of the house, taking
notes and photographs, like archeologists mapping out a
ruin. Upon opening the back door, Vasquez observed that
there was just enough space to squeeze past the
refrigerator blocking the exit. The air smelled of
burned rubber and melted wires; a damp ash covered the
ground, sticking to their boots. In the kitchen, Vasquez
and Fogg discerned only smoke and heat damage-a sign
that the fire had not originated there-and so they
pushed deeper into the nine-hundred-and-seventy-five-
square-foot building. A central corridor led past a
utility room and the master bedroom, then past a small
living room, on the left, and the children's bedroom, on
the right, ending at the front door, which opened onto
the porch. Vasquez tried to take in everything, a
process that he compared to entering one's mother-in-
law's house for the first time: "I have the same

In the utility room, he noticed on the wall pictures of
skulls and what he later described as an image of "the
Grim Reaper." Then he turned into the master bedroom,
where Amber's body had been found. Most of the damage
there was also from smoke and heat, suggesting that the
fire had started farther down the hallway, and he headed
that way, stepping over debris and ducking under
insulation and wiring that hung down from the exposed

As he and Fogg removed some of the clutter, they noticed
deep charring along the base of the walls. Because gases
become buoyant when heated, flames ordinarily burn
upward. But Vasquez and Fogg observed that the fire had
burned extremely low down, and that there were peculiar
char patterns on the floor, shaped like puddles.

Vasquez's mood darkened. He followed the "burn trailer"-
the path etched by the fire-which led from the hallway
into the children's bedroom. Sunlight filtering through
the broken windows illuminated more of the irregularly
shaped char patterns. A flammable or combustible liquid
doused on a floor will cause a fire to concentrate in
these kinds of pockets, which is why investigators refer
to them as "pour patterns" or "puddle configurations."

The fire had burned through layers of carpeting and tile
and plywood flooring. Moreover, the metal springs under
the children's beds had turned white-a sign that intense
heat had radiated beneath them. Seeing that the floor
had some of the deepest burns, Vasquez deduced that it
had been hotter than the ceiling, which, given that heat
rises, was, in his words, "not normal."

Fogg examined a piece of glass from one of the broken
windows. It contained a spiderweb-like pattern-what fire
investigators call "crazed glass." Forensic textbooks
had long described the effect as a key indicator that a
fire had burned "fast and hot," meaning that it had been
fuelled by a liquid accelerant, causing the glass to

The men looked again at what appeared to be a distinct
burn trailer through the house: it went from the
children's bedroom into the corridor, then turned
sharply to the right and proceeded out the front door.
To the investigators' surprise, even the wood under the
door's aluminum threshold was charred. On the concrete
floor of the porch, just outside the front door, Vasquez
and Fogg noticed another unusual thing: brown stains,
which, they reported, were consistent with the presence
of an accelerant.

The men scanned the walls for soot marks that resembled
a "V." When an object catches on fire, it creates such a
pattern, as heat and smoke radiate outward; the bottom
of the "V" can therefore point to where a fire began. In
the Willingham house, there was a distinct "V" in the
main corridor. Examining it and other burn patterns,
Vasquez identified three places where fire had
originated: in the hallway, in the children's bedroom,
and at the front door. Vasquez later testified that
multiple origins pointed to one conclusion: the fire was
"intentionally set by human hands."

By now, both investigators had a clear vision of what
had happened. Someone had poured liquid accelerant
throughout the children's room, even under their beds,
then poured some more along the adjoining hallway and
out the front door, creating a "fire barrier" that
prevented anyone from escaping; similarly, a prosecutor
later suggested, the refrigerator in the kitchen had
been moved to block the back-door exit. The house, in
short, had been deliberately transformed into a death

The investigators collected samples of burned materials
from the house and sent them to a laboratory that could
detect the presence of a liquid accelerant. The lab's
chemist reported that one of the samples contained
evidence of "mineral spirits," a substance that is often
found in charcoal-lighter fluid. The sample had been
taken by the threshold of the front door.

The fire was now considered a triple homicide, and Todd
Willingham-the only person, besides the victims, known
to have been in the house at the time of the blaze-
became the prime suspect.

Police and fire investigators canvassed the
neighborhood, interviewing witnesses. Several, like
Father Monaghan, initially portrayed Willingham as
devastated by the fire. Yet, over time, an increasing
number of witnesses offered damning statements. Diane
Barbee said that she had not seen Willingham try to
enter the house until after the authorities arrived, as
if he were putting on a show. And when the children's
room exploded with flames, she added, he seemed more
preoccupied with his car, which he moved down the
driveway. Another neighbor reported that when Willingham
cried out for his babies he "did not appear to be
excited or concerned." Even Father Monaghan wrote in a
statement that, upon further reflection, "things were
not as they seemed. I had the feeling that [Willingham]
was in complete control."

The police began to piece together a disturbing profile
of Willingham. Born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in 1968, he
had been abandoned by his mother when he was a baby. His
father, Gene, who had divorced his mother, eventually
raised him with his stepmother, Eugenia. Gene, a former
U.S. marine, worked in a salvage yard, and the family
lived in a cramped house; at night, they could hear
freight trains rattling past on a nearby track.
Willingham, who had what the family called the "classic
Willingham look"-a handsome face, thick black hair, and
dark eyes-struggled in school, and as a teen-ager began
to sniff paint. When he was seventeen, Oklahoma's
Department of Human Services evaluated him, and
reported, "He likes `girls,' music, fast cars, sharp
trucks, swimming, and hunting, in that order."
Willingham dropped out of high school, and over time was
arrested for, among other things, driving under the
influence, stealing a bicycle, and shoplifting.

In 1988, he met Stacy, a senior in high school, who also
came from a troubled background: when she was four years
old, her stepfather had strangled her mother to death
during a fight. Stacy and Willingham had a turbulent
relationship. Willingham, who was unfaithful, drank too
much Jack Daniel's, and sometimes hit Stacy-even when
she was pregnant. A neighbor said that he once heard
Willingham yell at her, "Get up, bitch, and I'll hit you

On December 31st, the authorities brought Willingham in
for questioning. Fogg and Vasquez were present for the
interrogation, along with Jimmie Hensley, a police
officer who was working his first arson case. Willingham
said that Stacy had left the house around 9 A.M. to pick
up a Christmas present for the kids, at the Salvation
Army. "After she got out of the driveway, I heard the
twins cry, so I got up and gave them a bottle," he said.
The children's room had a safety gate across the
doorway, which Amber could climb over but not the twins,
and he and Stacy often let the twins nap on the floor
after they drank their bottles. Amber was still in bed,
Willingham said, so he went back into his room to sleep.
"The next thing I remember is hearing `Daddy, Daddy,' "
he recalled. "The house was already full of smoke." He
said that he got up, felt around the floor for a pair of
pants, and put them on. He could no longer hear his
daughter's voice ("I heard that last `Daddy, Daddy' and
never heard her again"), and he hollered, "Oh God-
Amber, get out of the house! Get out of the house!' "

He never sensed that Amber was in his room, he said.
Perhaps she had already passed out by the time he stood
up, or perhaps she came in after he left, through a
second doorway, from the living room. He said that he
went down the corridor and tried to reach the children's
bedroom. In the hallway, he said, "you couldn't see
nothing but black." The air smelled the way it had when
their microwave had blown up, three weeks earlier-like
"wire and stuff like that." He could hear sockets and
light switches popping, and he crouched down, almost
crawling. When he made it to the children's bedroom, he
said, he stood and his hair caught on fire. "Oh God, I
never felt anything that hot before," he said of the
heat radiating out of the room.

After he patted out the fire on his hair, he said, he
got down on the ground and groped in the dark. "I
thought I found one of them once," he said, "but it was
a doll." He couldn't bear the heat any longer. "I felt
myself passing out," he said. Finally, he stumbled down
the corridor and out the front door, trying to catch his
breath. He saw Diane Barbee and yelled for her to call
the Fire Department. After she left, he insisted, he
tried without success to get back inside.

The investigators asked him if he had any idea how the
fire had started. He said that he wasn't sure, though it
must have originated in the children's room, since that
was where he first saw flames; they were glowing like
"bright lights." He and Stacy used three space heaters
to keep the house warm, and one of them was in the
children's room. "I taught Amber not to play with it,"
he said, adding that she got "whuppings every once in a
while for messing with it." He said that he didn't know
if the heater, which had an internal flame, was turned
on. (Vasquez later testified that when he had checked
the heater, four days after the fire, it was in the
"Off" position.) Willingham speculated that the fire
might have been started by something electrical: he had
heard all that popping and crackling.

When pressed whether someone might have a motive to hurt
his family, he said that he couldn't think of anyone
that "cold-blooded." He said of his children, "I just
don't understand why anybody would take them, you know?
We had three of the most pretty babies anybody could
have ever asked for." He went on, "Me and Stacy's been
together for four years, but off and on we get into a
fight and split up for a while and I think those babies
is what brought us so close together . . . neither one
of us . . . could live without them kids." Thinking of
Amber, he said, "To tell you the honest-to-God's truth,
I wish she hadn't woke me up."

During the interrogation, Vasquez let Fogg take the
lead. Finally, Vasquez turned to Willingham and asked a
seemingly random question: had he put on shoes before he
fled the house?

"No, sir," Willingham replied.

A map of the house was on a table between the men, and
Vasquez pointed to it. "You walked out this way?" he

Willingham said yes.

Vasquez was now convinced that Willingham had killed his
children. If the floor had been soaked with a liquid
accelerant and the fire had burned low, as the evidence
suggested, Willingham could not have run out of the
house the way he had described without badly burning his
feet. A medical report indicated that his feet had been

Willingham insisted that, when he left the house, the
fire was still around the top of the walls and not on
the floor. "I didn't have to jump through any flames,"
he said. Vasquez believed that this was impossible, and
that Willingham had lit the fire as he was retreating-
first, torching the children's room, then the hallway,
and then, from the porch, the front door. Vasquez later
said of Willingham, "He told me a story of pure
fabrication. . . . He just talked and he talked and all
he did was lie."

Still, there was no clear motive. The children had life-
insurance policies, but they amounted to only fifteen
thousand dollars, and Stacy's grandfather, who had paid
for them, was listed as the primary beneficiary. Stacy
told investigators that even though Willingham hit her
he had never abused the children-"Our kids were spoiled
rotten," she said-and she did not believe that
Willingham could have killed them.

Ultimately, the authorities concluded that Willingham
was a man without a conscience whose serial crimes had
climaxed, almost inexorably, in murder. John Jackson,
who was then the assistant district attorney in
Corsicana, was assigned to prosecute Willingham's case.
He later told the Dallas Morning News that he considered
Willingham to be "an utterly sociopathic individual" who
deemed his children "an impediment to his lifestyle."
Or, as the local district attorney, Pat Batchelor, put
it, "The children were interfering with his beer
drinking and dart throwing."

On the night of January 8, 1992, two weeks after the
fire, Willingham was riding in a car with Stacy when
SWAT teams surrounded them, forcing them to the side of
the road. "They pulled guns out like we had just robbed
ten banks," Stacy later recalled. "All we heard was
`click, click.' . . . Then they arrested him."

Willingham was charged with murder. Because there were
multiple victims, he was eligible for the death penalty,
under Texas law. Unlike many other prosecutors in the
state, Jackson, who had ambitions of becoming a judge,
was personally opposed to capital punishment. "I don't
think it's effective in deterring criminals," he told
me. "I just don't think it works." He also considered it
wasteful: because of the expense of litigation and the
appeals process, it costs, on average, $2.3 million to
execute a prisoner in Texas-about three times the cost
of incarcerating someone for forty years. Plus, Jackson
said, "What's the recourse if you make a mistake?" Yet
his boss, Batchelor, believed that, as he once put it,
"certain people who commit bad enough crimes give up the
right to live," and Jackson came to agree that the
heinous nature of the crime in the Willingham case-"one
of the worst in terms of body count" that he had ever
tried-mandated death.

Willingham couldn't afford to hire lawyers, and was
assigned two by the state: David Martin, a former state
trooper, and Robert Dunn, a local defense attorney who
represented everyone from alleged murderers to spouses
in divorce cases-a "Jack-of-all-trades," as he calls
himself. ("In a small town, you can't say `I'm a so-and-
so lawyer,' because you'll starve to death," he told

Not long after Willingham's arrest, authorities received
a message from a prison inmate named Johnny Webb, who
was in the same jail as Willingham. Webb alleged that
Willingham had confessed to him that he took "some kind
of lighter fluid, squirting [it] around the walls and
the floor, and set a fire." The case against Willingham
was considered airtight.

Even so, several of Stacy's relatives-who, unlike her,
believed that Willingham was guilty-told Jackson that
they preferred to avoid the anguish of a trial. And so,
shortly before jury selection, Jackson approached
Willingham's attorneys with an extraordinary offer: if
their client pleaded guilty, the state would give him a
life sentence. "I was really happy when I thought we
might have a deal to avoid the death penalty," Jackson

Willingham's lawyers were equally pleased. They had
little doubt that he had committed the murders and that,
if the case went before a jury, he would be found
guilty, and, subsequently, executed. "Everyone thinks
defense lawyers must believe their clients are innocent,
but that's seldom true," Martin told me. "Most of the
time, they're guilty as sin." He added of Willingham,
"All the evidence showed that he was one hundred per
cent guilty. He poured accelerant all over the house and
put lighter fluid under the kids' beds." It was, he
said, "a classic arson case": there were "puddle
patterns all over the place-no disputing those."

Martin and Dunn advised Willingham that he should accept
the offer, but he refused. The lawyers asked his father
and stepmother to speak to him. According to Eugenia,
Martin showed them photographs of the burned children
and said, "Look what your son did. You got to talk him
into pleading, or he's going to be executed."

His parents went to see their son in jail. Though his
father did not believe that he should plead guilty if he
were innocent, his stepmother beseeched him to take the
deal. "I just wanted to keep my boy alive," she told me.

Willingham was implacable. "I ain't gonna plead to
something I didn't do, especially killing my own kids,"
he said. It was his final decision. Martin says, "I
thought it was nuts at the time-and I think it's nuts

Willingham's refusal to accept the deal confirmed the
view of the prosecution, and even that of his defense
lawyers, that he was an unrepentant killer.

In August, 1992, the trial commenced in the old stone
courthouse in downtown Corsicana. Jackson and a team of
prosecutors summoned a procession of witnesses,
including Johnny Webb and the Barbees. The crux of the
state's case, though, remained the scientific evidence
gathered by Vasquez and Fogg. On the stand, Vasquez
detailed what he called more than "twenty indicators" of

"Do you have an opinion as to who started the fire?" one
of the prosecutors asked.

"Yes, sir," Vasquez said. "Mr. Willingham."

The prosecutor asked Vasquez what he thought
Willingham's intent was in lighting the fire. "To kill
the little girls," he said.

The defense had tried to find a fire expert to counter
Vasquez and Fogg's testimony, but the one they contacted
concurred with the prosecution. Ultimately, the defense
presented only one witness to the jury: the Willinghams'
babysitter, who said she could not believe that
Willingham could have killed his children. (Dunn told me
that Willingham had wanted to testify, but Martin and
Dunn thought that he would make a bad witness.) The
trial ended after two days.

During his closing arguments, Jackson said that the
puddle configurations and pour patterns were
Willingham's inadvertent "confession," burned into the
floor. Showing a Bible that had been salvaged from the
fire, Jackson paraphrased the words of Jesus from the
Gospel of Matthew: "Whomsoever shall harm one of my
children, it's better for a millstone to be hung around
his neck and for him to be cast in the sea."

The jury was out for barely an hour before returning
with a unanimous guilty verdict. As Vasquez put it, "The
fire does not lie."


When Elizabeth Gilbert approached the prison guard, on a
spring day in 1999, and said Cameron Todd Willingham's
name, she was uncertain about what she was doing. A
forty-seven-year-old French teacher and playwright from
Houston, Gilbert was divorced with two children. She had
never visited a prison before. Several weeks earlier, a
friend, who worked at an organization that opposed the
death penalty, had encouraged her to volunteer as a pen
pal for an inmate on death row, and Gilbert had offered
her name and address. Not long after, a short letter,
written with unsteady penmanship, arrived from
Willingham. "If you wish to write back, I would be
honored to correspond with you," he said. He also asked
if she might visit him. Perhaps out of a writer's
curiosity, or perhaps because she didn't feel quite
herself (she had just been upset by news that her ex-
husband was dying of cancer), she agreed. Now she was
standing in front of the decrepit penitentiary in
Huntsville, Texas-a place that inmates referred to as
"the death pit."

She filed past a razor-wire fence, a series of
floodlights, and a checkpoint, where she was patted
down, until she entered a small chamber. Only a few feet
in front of her was a man convicted of multiple
infanticide. He was wearing a white jumpsuit with "DR"-
for death row-printed on the back, in large black
letters. He had a tattoo of a serpent and a skull on his
left biceps. He stood nearly six feet tall and was
muscular, though his legs had atrophied after years of

A Plexiglas window separated Willingham from her; still,
Gilbert, who had short brown hair and a bookish manner,
stared at him uneasily. Willingham had once fought
another prisoner who called him a "baby killer," and
since he had been incarcerated, seven years earlier, he
had committed a series of disciplinary infractions that
had periodically landed him in the segregation unit,
which was known as "the dungeon."

Willingham greeted her politely. He seemed grateful that
she had come. After his conviction, Stacy had campaigned
for his release. She wrote to Ann Richards, then the
governor of Texas, saying, "I know him in ways that no
one else does when it comes to our children. Therefore,
I believe that there is no way he could have possibly
committed this crime." But within a year Stacy had filed
for divorce, and Willingham had few visitors except for
his parents, who drove from Oklahoma to see him once a
month. "I really have no one outside my parents to
remind me that I am a human being, not the animal the
state professes I am," he told Gilbert at one point.

He didn't want to talk about death row. "Hell, I live
here," he later wrote her. "When I have a visit, I want
to escape from here." He asked her questions about her
teaching and art. He expressed fear that, as a
playwright, she might find him a "one-dimensional
character," and apologized for lacking social graces; he
now had trouble separating the mores in prison from
those of the outside world.

When Gilbert asked him if he wanted something to eat or
drink from the vending machines, he declined. "I hope I
did not offend you by not accepting any snacks," he
later wrote her. "I didn't want you to feel I was there
just for something like that."

She had been warned that prisoners often tried to con
visitors. He appeared to realize this, subsequently
telling her, "I am just a simple man. Nothing else. And
to most other people a convicted killer looking for
someone to manipulate."

Their visit lasted for two hours, and afterward they
continued to correspond. She was struck by his letters,
which seemed introspective, and were not at all what she
had expected. "I am a very honest person with my
feelings," he wrote her. "I will not bullshit you on how
I feel or what I think." He said that he used to be
stoic, like his father. But, he added, "losing my three
daughters . . . my home, wife and my life, you tend to
wake up a little. I have learned to open myself."

She agreed to visit him again, and when she returned,
several weeks later, he was visibly moved. "Here I am
this person who nobody on the outside is ever going to
know as a human, who has lost so much, but still trying
to hold on," he wrote her afterward. "But you came back!
I don't think you will ever know of what importance that
visit was in my existence."

They kept exchanging letters, and she began asking him
about the fire. He insisted that he was innocent and
that, if someone had poured accelerant through the house
and lit it, then the killer remained free. Gilbert
wasn't naïve-she assumed that he was guilty. She did not
mind giving him solace, but she was not there to absolve

Still, she had become curious about the case, and one
day that fall she drove down to the courthouse in
Corsicana to review the trial records. Many people in
the community remembered the tragedy, and a clerk
expressed bewilderment that anyone would be interested
in a man who had burned his children alive.

Gilbert took the files and sat down at a small table. As
she examined the eyewitness accounts, she noticed
several contradictions. Diane Barbee had reported that,
before the authorities arrived at the fire, Willingham
never tried to get back into the house-yet she had been
absent for some time while calling the Fire Department.
Meanwhile, her daughter Buffie had reported witnessing
Willingham on the porch breaking a window, in an
apparent effort to reach his children. And the firemen
and police on the scene had described Willingham
frantically trying to get into the house.

The witnesses' testimony also grew more damning after
authorities had concluded, in the beginning of January,
1992, that Willingham was likely guilty of murder. In
Diane Barbee's initial statement to authorities, she had
portrayed Willingham as "hysterical," and described the
front of the house exploding. But on January 4th, after
arson investigators began suspecting Willingham of
murder, Barbee suggested that he could have gone back
inside to rescue his children, for at the outset she had
seen only "smoke coming from out of the front of the
house"-smoke that was not "real thick."

An even starker shift occurred with Father Monaghan's
testimony. In his first statement, he had depicted
Willingham as a devastated father who had to be
repeatedly restrained from risking his life. Yet, as
investigators were preparing to arrest Willingham, he
concluded that Willingham had been too emotional ("He
seemed to have the type of distress that a woman who had
given birth would have upon seeing her children die");
and he expressed a "gut feeling" that Willingham had
"something to do with the setting of the fire."

Dozens of studies have shown that witnesses' memories of
events often change when they are supplied with new
contextual information. Itiel Dror, a cognitive
psychologist who has done extensive research on
eyewitness and expert testimony in criminal
investigations, told me, "The mind is not a passive
machine. Once you believe in something-once you expect
something-it changes the way you perceive information
and the way your memory recalls it."

After Gilbert's visit to the courthouse, she kept
wondering about Willingham's motive, and she pressed him
on the matter. In response, he wrote, of the death of
his children, "I do not talk about it much anymore and
it is still a very powerfully emotional pain inside my
being." He admitted that he had been a "sorry-ass
husband" who had hit Stacy-something he deeply
regretted. But he said that he had loved his children
and would never have hurt them. Fatherhood, he said, had
changed him; he stopped being a hoodlum and "settled
down" and "became a man." Nearly three months before the
fire, he and Stacy, who had never married, wed at a
small ceremony in his home town of Ardmore. He said that
the prosecution had seized upon incidents from his past
and from the day of the fire to create a portrait of a
"demon," as Jackson, the prosecutor, referred to him.
For instance, Willingham said, he had moved the car
during the fire simply because he didn't want it to
explode by the house, further threatening the children.

Gilbert was unsure what to make of his story, and she
began to approach people who were involved in the case,
asking them questions. "My friends thought I was crazy,"
Gilbert recalls. "I'd never done anything like this in
my life."

One morning, when Willingham's parents came to visit
him, Gilbert arranged to see them first, at a coffee
shop near the prison. Gene, who was in his seventies,
had the Willingham look, though his black hair had gray
streaks and his dark eyes were magnified by glasses.
Eugenia, who was in her fifties, with silvery hair, was
as sweet and talkative as her husband was stern and
reserved. The drive from Oklahoma to Texas took six
hours, and they had woken at three in the morning;
because they could not afford a motel, they would have
to return home later that day. "I feel like a real
burden to them," Willingham had written Gilbert.

As Gene and Eugenia sipped coffee, they told Gilbert how
grateful they were that someone had finally taken an
interest in Todd's case. Gene said that his son, though
he had flaws, was no killer.

The evening before the fire, Eugenia said, she had
spoken on the phone with Todd. She and Gene were
planning on visiting two days later, on Christmas Eve,
and Todd told her that he and Stacy and the kids had
just picked up family photographs. "He said, `We got
your pictures for Christmas,' " she recalled. "He put
Amber on the phone, and she was tattling on one of the
twins. Todd didn't seem upset. If something was
bothering him, I would have known."

Gene and Eugenia got up to go: they didn't want to miss
any of the four hours that were allotted for the visit
with their son. Before they left, Gene said, "You'll let
us know if you find anything, won't you?"

Over the next few weeks, Gilbert continued to track down
sources. Many of them, including the Barbees, remained
convinced that Willingham was guilty, but several of his
friends and relatives had doubts. So did some people in
law enforcement. Willingham's former probation officer
in Oklahoma, Polly Goodin, recently told me that
Willingham had never demonstrated bizarre or sociopathic
behavior. "He was probably one of my favorite kids," she
said. Even a former judge named Bebe Bridges-who had
often stood, as she put it, on the "opposite side" of
Willingham in the legal system, and who had sent him to
jail for stealing-told me that she could not imagine him
killing his children. "He was polite, and he seemed to
care," she said. "His convictions had been for dumb-kid
stuff. Even the things stolen weren't significant."
Several months before the fire, Willingham tracked
Goodin down at her office, and proudly showed her
photographs of Stacy and the kids. "He wanted Bebe and
me to know he'd been doing good," Goodin recalled.

Eventually, Gilbert returned to Corsicana to interview
Stacy, who had agreed to meet at the bed-and-breakfast
where Gilbert was staying. Stacy was slightly plump,
with pale, round cheeks and feathered dark-blond hair;
her bangs were held in place by gel, and her face was
heavily made up. According to a tape recording of the
conversation, Stacy said that nothing unusual had
happened in the days before the fire. She and Willingham
had not fought, and were preparing for the holiday.
Though Vasquez, the arson expert, had recalled finding
the space heater off, Stacy was sure that, at least on
the day of the incident-a cool winter morning-it had
been on. "I remember turning it down," she recalled. "I
always thought, Gosh, could Amber have put something in
there?" Stacy added that, more than once, she had caught
Amber "putting things too close to it."

Willingham had often not treated her well, she recalled,
and after his incarceration she had left him for a man
who did. But she didn't think that her former husband
should be on death row. "I don't think he did it," she
said, crying.

Though only the babysitter had appeared as a witness for
the defense during the main trial, several family
members, including Stacy, testified during the penalty
phase, asking the jury to spare Willingham's life. When
Stacy was on the stand, Jackson grilled her about the
"significance" of Willingham's "very large tattoo of a
skull, encircled by some kind of a serpent."

"It's just a tattoo," Stacy responded.

"He just likes skulls and snakes. Is that what you're

"No. He just had-he got a tattoo on him."

The prosecution cited such evidence in asserting that
Willingham fit the profile of a sociopath, and brought
forth two medical experts to confirm the theory. Neither
had met Willingham. One of them was Tim Gregory, a
psychologist with a master's degree in marriage and
family issues, who had previously gone goose hunting
with Jackson, and had not published any research in the
field of sociopathic behavior. His practice was devoted
to family counselling.

At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60-a
photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in
Willingham's house-and asked the psychologist to
interpret it. "This one is a picture of a skull, with a
fist being punched through the skull," Gregory said; the
image displayed "violence" and "death." Gregory looked
at photographs of other music posters owned by
Willingham. "There's a hooded skull, with wings and a
hatchet," Gregory continued. "And all of these are in
fire, depicting-it reminds me of something like Hell.
And there's a picture-a Led Zeppelin picture of a
falling angel. . . . I see there's an association many
times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death,
dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this
type of art have interest in satanic-type activities."

The other medical expert was James P. Grigson, a
forensic psychiatrist. He testified so often for the
prosecution in capital-punishment cases that he had
become known as Dr. Death. (A Texas appellate judge once
wrote that when Grigson appeared on the stand the
defendant might as well "commence writing out his last
will and testament.") Grigson suggested that Willingham
was an "extremely severe sociopath," and that "no pill"
or treatment could help him. Grigson had previously used
nearly the same words in helping to secure a death
sentence against Randall Dale Adams, who had been
convicted of murdering a police officer, in 1977. After
Adams, who had no prior criminal record, spent a dozen
years on death row-and once came within seventy-two
hours of being executed-new evidence emerged that
absolved him, and he was released. In 1995, three years
after Willingham's trial, Grigson was expelled from the
American Psychiatric Association for violating ethics.
The association stated that Grigson had repeatedly
arrived at a "psychiatric diagnosis without first having
examined the individuals in question, and for
indicating, while testifying in court as an expert
witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent
certainty that the individuals would engage in future
violent acts."

After speaking to Stacy, Gilbert had one more person she
wanted to interview: the jailhouse informant Johnny
Webb, who was incarcerated in Iowa Park, Texas. She
wrote to Webb, who said that she could see him, and they
met in the prison visiting room. A man in his late
twenties, he had pallid skin and a closely shaved head;
his eyes were jumpy, and his entire body seemed to
tremble. A reporter who once met him described him to me
as "nervous as a cat around rocking chairs." Webb had
begun taking drugs when he was nine years old, and had
been convicted of, among other things, car theft,
selling marijuana, forgery, and robbery.

As Gilbert chatted with him, she thought that he seemed
paranoid. During Willingham's trial, Webb disclosed that
he had been given a diagnosis of "post-traumatic stress
disorder" after he was sexually assaulted in prison, in
1988, and that he often suffered from "mental
impairment." Under cross-examination, Webb testified
that he had no recollection of a robbery that he had
pleaded guilty to only months earlier.

Webb repeated for her what he had said in court: he had
passed by Willingham's cell, and as they spoke through a
food slot Willingham broke down and told him that he
intentionally set the house on fire. Gilbert was
dubious. It was hard to believe that Willingham, who had
otherwise insisted on his innocence, had suddenly
confessed to an inmate he barely knew. The conversation
had purportedly taken place by a speaker system that
allowed any of the guards to listen-an unlikely spot for
an inmate to reveal a secret. What's more, Webb alleged
that Willingham had told him that Stacy had hurt one of
the kids, and that the fire was set to cover up the
crime. The autopsies, however, had revealed no bruises
or signs of trauma on the children's bodies.

Jailhouse informants, many of whom are seeking reduced
time or special privileges, are notoriously unreliable.
According to a 2004 study by the Center on Wrongful
Convictions, at Northwestern University Law School,
lying police and jailhouse informants are the leading
cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases in the
United States. At the time that Webb came forward
against Willingham, he was facing charges of robbery and
forgery. During Willingham's trial, another inmate
planned to testify that he had overheard Webb saying to
another prisoner that he was hoping to "get time cut,"
but the testimony was ruled inadmissible, because it was
hearsay. Webb, who pleaded guilty to the robbery and
forgery charges, received a sentence of fifteen years.
Jackson, the prosecutor, told me that he generally
considered Webb "an unreliable kind of guy," but added,
"I saw no real motive for him to make a statement like
this if it wasn't true. We didn't cut him any slack." In
1997, five years after Willingham's trial, Jackson urged
the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Webb
parole. "I asked them to cut him loose early," Jackson
told me. The reason, Jackson said, was that Webb had
been targeted by the Aryan Brotherhood. The board
granted Webb parole, but within months of his release he
was caught with cocaine and returned to prison.

In March, 2000, several months after Gilbert's visit,
Webb unexpectedly sent Jackson a Motion to Recant
Testimony, declaring, "Mr. Willingham is innocent of all
charges." But Willingham's lawyer was not informed of
this development, and soon afterward Webb, without
explanation, recanted his recantation. When I recently
asked Webb, who was released from prison two years ago,
about the turnabout and why Willingham would have
confessed to a virtual stranger, he said that he knew
only what "the dude told me." After I pressed him, he
said, "It's very possible I misunderstood what he said."
Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional
diagnosis, bipolar disorder. "Being locked up in that
little cell makes you kind of crazy," he said. "My
memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of
medication at the time. Everyone knew that." He paused,
then said, "The statute of limitations has run out on
perjury, hasn't it?"

Aside from the scientific evidence of arson, the case
against Willingham did not stand up to scrutiny.
Jackson, the prosecutor, said of Webb's testimony, "You
can take it or leave it." Even the refrigerator's
placement by the back door of the house turned out to be
innocuous; there were two refrigerators in the cramped
kitchen, and one of them was by the back door. Jimmie
Hensley, the police detective, and Douglas Fogg, the
assistant fire chief, both of whom investigated the
fire, told me recently that they had never believed that
the fridge was part of the arson plot. "It didn't have
nothing to do with the fire," Fogg said.

After months of investigating the case, Gilbert found
that her faith in the prosecution was shaken. As she
told me, "What if Todd really was innocent?"


In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William
Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of
Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat
was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police
interrogated Harrison's servant, John Perry, and
eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and
his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his
mother, and his brother were hanged.

Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted,
fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of
criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one
thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the

The fear that an innocent person might be executed has
long haunted jurors and lawyers and judges. During
America's Colonial period, dozens of crimes were
punishable by death, including horse thievery,
blasphemy, "man-stealing," and highway robbery. After
independence, the number of crimes eligible for the
death penalty was gradually reduced, but doubts
persisted over whether legal procedures were sufficient
to prevent an innocent person from being executed. In
1868, John Stuart Mill made one of the most eloquent
defenses of capital punishment, arguing that executing a
murderer did not display a wanton disregard for life
but, rather, proof of its value. "We show, on the
contrary, most emphatically our regard for it by the
adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in
another forfeits it for himself," he said. For Mill,
there was one counterargument that carried weight-"that
if by an error of justice an innocent person is put to
death, the mistake can never be corrected."

The modern legal system, with its lengthy appeals
process and clemency boards, was widely assumed to
protect the kind of "error of justice" that Mill feared.
In 2000, while George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he
said, "I know there are some in the country who don't
care for the death penalty, but . . . we've adequately
answered innocence or guilt." His top policy adviser on
issues of criminal justice emphasized that there is
"super due process to make sure that no innocent
defendants are executed."

In recent years, though, questions have mounted over
whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a
hundred and thirty people on death row have been
exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the
eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can
be used only in rare instances. Barry Scheck, a co-
founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA
testing to exonerate prisoners, estimates that about
eighty per cent of felonies do not involve biological

In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois
were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of
the state, suspended the death penalty. Though he had
been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, he
declared that he could no longer support a system that
has "come so close to the ultimate nightmare-the state's
taking of innocent life." Former Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor has said that the "execution of a
legally and factually innocent person would be a
constitutionally intolerable event."

Such a case has become a kind of grisly Holy Grail among
opponents of capital punishment. In his 2002 book "The
Death Penalty," Stuart Banner observes, "The prospect of
killing an innocent person seemed to be the one thing
that could cause people to rethink their support for
capital punishment. Some who were not troubled by
statistical arguments against the death penalty-claims
about deterrence or racial disparities-were deeply
troubled that such an extreme injustice might occur in
an individual case." Opponents of the death penalty have
pointed to several questionable cases. In 1993, Ruben
Cantu was executed in Texas for fatally shooting a man
during a robbery. Years later, a second victim, who
survived the shooting, told the Houston Chronicle that
he had been pressured by police to identify Cantu as the
gunman, even though he believed Cantu to be innocent.
Sam Millsap, the district attorney in the case, who had
once supported capital punishment ("I'm no wild-eyed,
pointy-headed liberal"), said that he was disturbed by
the thought that he had made a mistake.

In 1995, Larry Griffin was put to death in Missouri, for
a drive-by shooting of a drug dealer. The case rested
largely on the eyewitness testimony of a career criminal
named Robert Fitzgerald, who had been an informant for
prosecutors before and was in the witness-protection
program. Fitzgerald maintained that he happened to be at
the scene because his car had broken down. After
Griffin's execution, a probe sponsored by the
N.A.A.C.P.'s Legal Defense and Educational Fund revealed
that a man who had been wounded during the incident
insisted that Griffin was not the shooter. Moreover, the
first police officer at the scene disputed that
Fitzgerald had witnessed the crime.

These cases, however, stopped short of offering
irrefutable proof that a "legally and factually innocent
person" was executed. In 2005, a St. Louis prosecutor,
Jennifer Joyce, launched an investigation of the Griffin
case, upon being presented with what she called
"compelling" evidence of Griffin's potential innocence.
After two years of reviewing the evidence, and
interviewing a new eyewitness, Joyce said that she and
her team were convinced that the "right person was

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2006, voted
with a majority to uphold the death penalty in a Kansas
case. In his opinion, Scalia declared that, in the
modern judicial system, there has not been "a single
case-not one-in which it is clear that a person was
executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event
had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt
for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the

"My problems are simple," Willingham wrote Gilbert in
September, 1999. "Try to keep them from killing me at
all costs. End of story."

During his first years on death row, Willingham had
pleaded with his lawyer, David Martin, to rescue him.
"You can't imagine what it's like to be here, with
people I have no business even being around," he wrote.

For a while, Willingham shared a cell with Ricky Lee
Green, a serial killer, who castrated and fatally
stabbed his victims, including a sixteen-year-old boy.
(Green was executed in 1997.) Another of Willingham's
cellmates, who had an I.Q. below seventy and the
emotional development of an eight-year-old, was raped by
an inmate. "You remember me telling you I had a new
celly?" Willingham wrote in a letter to his parents.
"The little retarded boy. . . . There was this guy here
on the wing who is a shit sorry coward (who is the same
one I got into it with a little over a month ago). Well,
he raped [my cellmate] in the 3 row shower week before
last." Willingham said that he couldn't believe that
someone would "rape a boy who cannot even defend
himself. Pretty damn low."

Because Willingham was known as a "baby killer," he was
a target of attacks. "Prison is a rough place, and with
a case like mine they never give you the benefit of a
doubt," he wrote his parents. After he tried to fight
one prisoner who threatened him, Willingham told a
friend that if he hadn't stood up for himself several
inmates would have "beaten me up or raped or"-his
thought trailed off.

Over the years, Willingham's letters home became
increasingly despairing. "This is a hard place, and it
makes a person hard inside," he wrote. "I told myself
that was one thing I did not want and that was for this
place to make me bitter, but it is hard." He went on,
"They have [executed] at least one person every month I
have been here. It is senseless and brutal. . . . You
see, we are not living in here, we are only existing."
In 1996, he wrote, "I just been trying to figure out why
after having a wife and 3 beautiful children that I
loved my life has to end like this. And sometimes it
just seems like it is not worth it all. . . . In the 3
1/2 years I been here I have never felt that my life was
as worthless and desolate as it is now." Since the fire,
he wrote, he had the sense that his life was slowly
being erased. He obsessively looked at photographs of
his children and Stacy, which he stored in his cell. "So
long ago, so far away," he wrote in a poem. "Was
everything truly there?"

Inmates on death row are housed in a prison within a
prison, where there are no attempts at rehabilitation,
and no educational or training programs. In 1999, after
seven prisoners tried to escape from Huntsville,
Willingham and four hundred and fifty-nine other inmates
on death row were moved to a more secure facility, in
Livingston, Texas. Willingham was held in isolation in a
sixty-square-foot cell, twenty-three hours a day. He
tried to distract himself by drawing-"amateur stuff," as
he put it-and writing poems. In a poem about his
children, he wrote, "There is nothing more beautiful
than you on this earth." When Gilbert once suggested
some possible revisions to his poems, he explained that
he wrote them simply as expressions, however crude, of
his feelings. "So to me to cut them up and try to
improve on them just for creative-writing purposes would
be to destroy what I was doing to start with," he said.

Despite his efforts to occupy his thoughts, he wrote in
his diary that his mind "deteriorates each passing day."
He stopped working out and gained weight. He questioned
his faith: "No God who cared about his creation would
abandon the innocent." He seemed not to care if another
inmate attacked him. "A person who is already dead
inside does not fear" death, he wrote.

One by one, the people he knew in prison were escorted
into the execution chamber. There was Clifton Russell,
Jr., who, at the age of eighteen, stabbed and beat a man
to death, and who said, in his last statement, "I thank
my Father, God in Heaven, for the grace he has granted
me-I am ready." There was Jeffery Dean Motley, who
kidnapped and fatally shot a woman, and who declared, in
his final words, "I love you, Mom. Goodbye." And there
was John Fearance, who murdered his neighbor, and who
turned to God in his last moments and said, "I hope He
will forgive me for what I done."

Willingham had grown close to some of his prison mates,
even though he knew that they were guilty of brutal
crimes. In March, 2000, Willingham's friend Ponchai
Wilkerson-a twenty-eight-year-old who had shot and
killed a clerk during a jewelry heist-was executed.
Afterward, Willingham wrote in his diary that he felt
"an emptiness that has not been touched since my
children were taken from me." A year later, another
friend who was about to be executed-"one of the few real
people I have met here not caught up in the bravado of
prison"-asked Willingham to make him a final drawing.
"Man, I never thought drawing a simple Rose could be so
emotionally hard," Willingham wrote. "The hard part is
knowing that this will be the last thing I can do for

Another inmate, Ernest Ray Willis, had a case that was
freakishly similar to Willingham's. In 1987, Willis had
been convicted of setting a fire, in West Texas, that
killed two women. Willis told investigators that he had
been sleeping on a friend's living-room couch and woke
up to a house full of smoke. He said that he tried to
rouse one of the women, who was sleeping in another
room, but the flames and smoke drove him back, and he
ran out the front door before the house exploded with
flames. Witnesses maintained that Willis had acted
suspiciously; he moved his car out of the yard, and
didn't show "any emotion," as one volunteer firefighter
put it. Authorities also wondered how Willis could have
escaped the house without burning his bare feet. Fire
investigators found pour patterns, puddle
configurations, and other signs of arson. The
authorities could discern no motive for the crime, but
concluded that Willis, who had no previous record of
violence, was a sociopath-a "demon," as the prosecutor
put it. Willis was charged with capital murder and
sentenced to death.

Willis had eventually obtained what Willingham called,
enviously, a "bad-ass lawyer." James Blank, a noted
patent attorney in New York, was assigned Willis's case
as part of his firm's pro-bono work. Convinced that
Willis was innocent, Blank devoted more than a dozen
years to the case, and his firm spent millions, on fire
consultants, private investigators, forensic experts,
and the like. Willingham, meanwhile, relied on David
Martin, his court-appointed lawyer, and one of Martin's
colleagues to handle his appeals. Willingham often told
his parents, "You don't know what it's like to have
lawyers who won't even believe you're innocent." Like
many inmates on death row, Willingham eventually filed a
claim of inadequate legal representation. (When I
recently asked Martin about his representation of
Willingham, he said, "There were no grounds for
reversal, and the verdict was absolutely the right one."
He said of the case, "Shit, it's incredible that
anyone's even thinking about it.")

Willingham tried to study the law himself, reading books
such as "Tact in Court, or How Lawyers Win: Containing
Sketches of Cases Won by Skill, Wit, Art, Tact, Courage
and Eloquence." Still, he confessed to a friend, "The
law is so complicated it is hard for me to understand."
In 1996, he obtained a new court-appointed lawyer,
Walter Reaves, who told me that he was appalled by the
quality of Willingham's defense at trial and on appeal.
Reaves prepared for him a state writ of habeas corpus,
known as a Great Writ. In the byzantine appeals process
of death-penalty cases, which frequently takes more than
ten years, the writ is the most critical stage: a
prisoner can introduce new evidence detailing such
things as perjured testimony, unreliable medical
experts, and bogus scientific findings. Yet most
indigent inmates, like Willingham, who constitute the
bulk of those on death row, lack the resources to track
down new witnesses or dig up fresh evidence. They must
depend on court-appointed lawyers, many of whom are
"unqualified, irresponsible, or overburdened," as a
study by the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit
organization, put it. In 2000, a Dallas Morning News
investigation revealed that roughly a quarter of the
inmates condemned to death in Texas were represented by
court-appointed attorneys who had, at some point in
their careers, been "reprimanded, placed on probation,
suspended or banned from practicing law by the State
Bar." Although Reaves was more competent, he had few
resources to reinvestigate the case, and his writ
introduced no new exculpatory evidence: nothing further
about Webb, or the reliability of the eyewitness
testimony, or the credibility of the medical experts. It
focussed primarily on procedural questions, such as
whether the trial court erred in its instructions to the

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was known for
upholding convictions even when overwhelming exculpatory
evidence came to light. In 1997, DNA testing proved that
sperm collected from a rape victim did not match Roy
Criner, who had been sentenced to ninety-nine years for
the crime. Two lower courts recommended that the verdict
be overturned, but the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld
it, arguing that Criner might have worn a condom or
might not have ejaculated. Sharon Keller, who is now the
presiding judge on the court, stated in a majority
opinion, "The new evidence does not establish
innocence." In 2000, George W. Bush pardoned Criner.
(Keller was recently charged with judicial misconduct,
for refusing to keep open past five o'clock a clerk's
office in order to allow a last-minute petition from a
man who was executed later that night.)

On October 31, 1997, the Court of Criminal Appeals
denied Willingham's writ. After Willingham filed another
writ of habeas corpus, this time in federal court, he
was granted a temporary stay. In a poem, Willingham
wrote, "One more chance, one more strike / Another
bullet dodged, another date escaped."

Willingham was entering his final stage of appeals. As
his anxieties mounted, he increasingly relied upon
Gilbert to investigate his case and for emotional
support. "She may never know what a change she brought
into my life," he wrote in his diary. "For the first
time in many years she gave me a purpose, something to
look forward to."

As their friendship deepened, he asked her to promise
him that she would never disappear without explanation.
"I already have that in my life," he told her.

Together, they pored over clues and testimony. Gilbert
says that she would send Reaves leads to follow up, but
although he was sympathetic, nothing seemed to come of
them. In 2002, a federal district court of appeals
denied Willingham's writ without even a hearing. "Now I
start the last leg of my journey," Willingham wrote to
Gilbert. "Got to get things in order."

He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in December,
2003, he was notified that it had declined to hear his
case. He soon received a court order announcing that
"the Director of the Department of Criminal Justice at
Huntsville, Texas, acting by and through the executioner
designated by said Director . . . is hereby DIRECTED and
COMMANDED, at some hour after 6:00 p.m. on the 17th day
of February, 2004, at the Department of Criminal Justice
in Huntsville, Texas, to carry out this sentence of
death by intravenous injection of a substance or
substances in a lethal quantity sufficient to cause the
death of said Cameron Todd Willingham."

Willingham wrote a letter to his parents. "Are you
sitting down?" he asked, before breaking the news. "I
love you both so much," he said.

His only remaining recourse was to appeal to the
governor of Texas, Rick Perry, a Republican, for
clemency. The process, considered the last gatekeeper to
the executioner, has been called by the U.S. Supreme
Court "the `fail safe' in our criminal justice system."


One day in January, 2004, Dr. Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed
scientist and fire investigator, received a file
describing all the evidence of arson gathered in
Willingham's case. Gilbert had come across Hurst's name
and, along with one of Willingham's relatives, had
contacted him, seeking his help. After their pleas,
Hurst had agreed to look at the case pro bono, and
Reaves, Willingham's lawyer, had sent him the relevant
documents, in the hope that there were grounds for

Hurst opened the file in the basement of his house in
Austin, which served as a laboratory and an office, and
was cluttered with microscopes and diagrams of half-
finished experiments. Hurst was nearly six and half feet
tall, though his stooped shoulders made him seem
considerably shorter, and he had a gaunt face that was
partly shrouded by long gray hair. He was wearing his
customary outfit: black shoes, black socks, a black T-
shirt, and loose-fitting black pants supported by black
suspenders. In his mouth was a wad of chewing tobacco.

A child prodigy who was raised by a sharecropper during
the Great Depression, Hurst used to prowl junk yards,
collecting magnets and copper wires in order to build
radios and other contraptions. In the early sixties, he
received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University,
where he started to experiment with fluorine and other
explosive chemicals, and once detonated his lab. Later,
he worked as the chief scientist on secret weapons
programs for several American companies, designing
rockets and deadly fire bombs-or what he calls "god-
awful things." He helped patent what has been described,
with only slight exaggeration, as "the world's most
powerful nonnuclear explosive": an Astrolite bomb. He
experimented with toxins so lethal that a fraction of a
drop would rot human flesh, and in his laboratory he
often had to wear a pressurized moon suit; despite such
precautions, exposure to chemicals likely caused his
liver to fail, and in 1994 he required a transplant.
Working on what he calls "the dark side of arson," he
retrofitted napalm bombs with Astrolite, and developed
ways for covert operatives in Vietnam to create bombs
from local materials, such as chicken manure and sugar.
He also perfected a method for making an exploding T-
shirt by nitrating its fibres.

His conscience eventually began pricking him. "One day,
you wonder, What the hell am I doing?" he recalls. He
left the defense industry, and went on to invent the
Mylar balloon, an improved version of Liquid Paper, and
Kinepak, a kind of explosive that reduces the risk of
accidental detonation. Because of his extraordinary
knowledge of fire and explosives, companies in civil
litigation frequently sought his help in determining the
cause of a blaze. By the nineties, Hurst had begun
devoting significant time to criminal-arson cases, and,
as he was exposed to the methods of local and state fire
investigators, he was shocked by what he saw.

Many arson investigators, it turned out, had only a
high-school education. In most states, in order to be
certified, investigators had to take a forty-hour course
on fire investigation, and pass a written exam. Often,
the bulk of an investigator's training came on the job,
learning from "old-timers" in the field, who passed down
a body of wisdom about the telltale signs of arson, even
though a study in 1977 warned that there was nothing in
"the scientific literature to substantiate their

In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association, which
promotes fire prevention and safety, published its first
scientifically based guidelines to arson investigation.
Still, many arson investigators believed that what they
did was more an art than a science-a blend of experience
and intuition. In 1997, the International Association of
Arson Investigators filed a legal brief arguing that
arson sleuths should not be bound by a 1993 Supreme
Court decision requiring experts who testified at trials
to adhere to the scientific method. What arson sleuths
did, the brief claimed, was "less scientific." By 2000,
after the courts had rejected such claims, arson
investigators increasingly recognized the scientific
method, but there remained great variance in the field,
with many practitioners still relying on the unverified
techniques that had been used for generations. "People
investigated fire largely with a flat-earth approach,"
Hurst told me. "It looks like arson-therefore, it's
arson." He went on, "My view is you have to have a
scientific basis. Otherwise, it's no different than

In 1998, Hurst investigated the case of a woman from
North Carolina named Terri Hinson, who was charged with
setting a fire that killed her seventeen-month-old son,
and faced the death penalty. Hurst ran a series of
experiments re-creating the conditions of the fire,
which suggested that it had not been arson, as the
investigators had claimed; rather, it had started
accidentally, from a faulty electrical wire in the
attic. Because of this research, Hinson was freed. John
Lentini, a fire expert and the author of a leading
scientific textbook on arson, describes Hurst as
"brilliant." A Texas prosecutor once told the Chicago
Tribune, of Hurst, "If he says it was an arson fire,
then it was. If he says it wasn't, then it wasn't."

Hurst's patents yielded considerable royalties, and he
could afford to work pro bono on an arson case for
months, even years. But he received the files on
Willingham's case only a few weeks before Willingham was
scheduled to be executed. As Hurst looked through the
case records, a statement by Manuel Vasquez, the state
deputy fire marshal, jumped out at him. Vasquez had
testified that, of the roughly twelve hundred to fifteen
hundred fires he had investigated, "most all of them"
were arson. This was an oddly high estimate; the Texas
State Fire Marshals Office typically found arson in only
fifty per cent of its cases.

Hurst was also struck by Vasquez's claim that the
Willingham blaze had "burned fast and hot" because of a
liquid accelerant. The notion that a flammable or
combustible liquid caused flames to reach higher
temperatures had been repeated in court by arson sleuths
for decades. Yet the theory was nonsense: experiments
have proved that wood and gasoline-fuelled fires burn at
essentially the same temperature.

Vasquez and Fogg had cited as proof of arson the fact
that the front door's aluminum threshold had melted.
"The only thing that can cause that to react is an
accelerant," Vasquez said. Hurst was incredulous. A
natural-wood fire can reach temperatures as high as two
thousand degrees Fahrenheit-far hotter than the melting
point for aluminum alloys, which ranges from a thousand
to twelve hundred degrees. And, like many other
investigators, Vasquez and Fogg mistakenly assumed that
wood charring beneath the aluminum threshold was
evidence that, as Vasquez put it, "a liquid accelerant
flowed underneath and burned." Hurst had conducted
myriad experiments showing that such charring was caused
simply by the aluminum conducting so much heat. In fact,
when liquid accelerant is poured under a threshold a
fire will extinguish, because of a lack of oxygen.
(Other scientists had reached the same conclusion.)
"Liquid accelerants can no more burn under an aluminum
threshold than can grease burn in a skillet even with a
loose-fitting lid," Hurst declared in his report on the
Willingham case.

Hurst then examined Fogg and Vasquez's claim that the
"brown stains" on Willingham's front porch were evidence
of "liquid accelerant," which had not had time to soak
into the concrete. Hurst had previously performed a test
in his garage, in which he poured charcoal-lighter fluid
on the concrete floor, and lit it. When the fire went
out, there were no brown stains, only smudges of soot.
Hurst had run the same experiment many times, with
different kinds of liquid accelerants, and the result
was always the same. Brown stains were common in fires;
they were usually composed of rust or gunk from charred
debris that had mixed with water from fire hoses.

Another crucial piece of evidence implicating Willingham
was the "crazed glass" that Vasquez had attributed to
the rapid heating from a fire fuelled with liquid
accelerant. Yet, in November of 1991, a team of fire
investigators had inspected fifty houses in the hills of
Oakland, California, which had been ravaged by brush
fires. In a dozen houses, the investigators discovered
crazed glass, even though a liquid accelerant had not
been used. Most of these houses were on the outskirts of
the blaze, where firefighters had shot streams of water;
as the investigators later wrote in a published study,
they theorized that the fracturing had been induced by
rapid cooling, rather than by sudden heating-thermal
shock had caused the glass to contract so quickly that
it settled disjointedly. The investigators then tested
this hypothesis in a laboratory. When they heated glass,
nothing happened. But each time they applied water to
the heated glass the intricate patterns appeared. Hurst
had seen the same phenomenon when he had blowtorched and
cooled glass during his research at Cambridge. In his
report, Hurst wrote that Vasquez and Fogg's notion of
crazed glass was no more than an "old wives' tale."

Hurst then confronted some of the most devastating arson
evidence against Willingham: the burn trailer, the pour
patterns and puddle configurations, the V-shape and
other burn marks indicating that the fire had multiple
points of origin, the burning underneath the children's
beds. There was also the positive test for mineral
spirits by the front door, and Willingham's seemingly
implausible story that he had run out of the house
without burning his bare feet.

As Hurst read through more of the files, he noticed that
Willingham and his neighbors had described the windows
in the front of the house suddenly exploding and flames
roaring forth. It was then that Hurst thought of the
legendary Lime Street Fire, one of the most pivotal in
the history of arson investigation.

On the evening of October 15, 1990, a thirty-five-year-
old man named Gerald Wayne Lewis was found standing in
front of his house on Lime Street, in Jacksonville,
Florida, holding his three-year-old son. His two-story
wood-frame home was engulfed in flames. By the time the
fire had been extinguished, six people were dead,
including Lewis's wife. Lewis said that he had rescued
his son but was unable to get to the others, who were

When fire investigators examined the scene, they found
the classic signs of arson: low burns along the walls
and floors, pour patterns and puddle configurations, and
a burn trailer running from the living room into the
hallway. Lewis claimed that the fire had started
accidentally, on a couch in the living room-his son had
been playing with matches. But a V-shaped pattern by one
of the doors suggested that the fire had originated
elsewhere. Some witnesses told authorities that Lewis
seemed too calm during the fire and had never tried to
get help. According to the Los Angeles Times, Lewis had
previously been arrested for abusing his wife, who had
taken out a restraining order against him. After a
chemist said that he had detected the presence of
gasoline on Lewis's clothing and shoes, a report by the
sheriff's office concluded, "The fire was started as a
result of a petroleum product being poured on the front
porch, foyer, living room, stairwell and second floor
bedroom." Lewis was arrested and charged with six counts
of murder. He faced the death penalty.

Subsequent tests, however, revealed that the laboratory
identification of gasoline was wrong. Moreover, a local
news television camera had captured Lewis in a clearly
agitated state at the scene of the fire, and
investigators discovered that at one point he had jumped
in front of a moving car, asking the driver to call the
Fire Department.

Seeking to bolster their theory of the crime,
prosecutors turned to John Lentini, the fire expert, and
John DeHaan, another leading investigator and textbook
author. Despite some of the weaknesses of the case,
Lentini told me that, given the classic burn patterns
and puddle configurations in the house, he was sure that
Lewis had set the fire: "I was prepared to testify and
send this guy to Old Sparky"-the electric chair.

To discover the truth, the investigators, with the
backing of the prosecution, decided to conduct an
elaborate experiment and re-create the fire scene. Local
officials gave the investigators permission to use a
condemned house next to Lewis's home, which was about to
be torn down. The two houses were virtually identical,
and the investigators refurbished the condemned one with
the same kind of carpeting, curtains, and furniture that
had been in Lewis's home. The scientists also wired the
building with heat and gas sensors that could withstand
fire. The cost of the experiment came to twenty thousand
dollars. Without using liquid accelerant, Lentini and
DeHaan set the couch in the living room on fire,
expecting that the experiment would demonstrate that
Lewis's version of events was implausible.

The investigators watched as the fire quickly consumed
the couch, sending upward a plume of smoke that hit the
ceiling and spread outward, creating a thick layer of
hot gases overhead-an efficient radiator of heat. Within
three minutes, this cloud, absorbing more gases from the
fire below, was banking down the walls and filling the
living room. As the cloud approached the floor, its
temperature rose, in some areas, to more than eleven
hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Suddenly, the entire room
exploded in flames, as the radiant heat ignited every
piece of furniture, every curtain, every possible fuel
source, even the carpeting. The windows shattered.

The fire had reached what is called "flashover"-the
point at which radiant heat causes a fire in a room to
become a room on fire. Arson investigators knew about
the concept of flashover, but it was widely believed to
take much longer to occur, especially without a liquid
accelerant. From a single fuel source-a couch-the room
had reached flashover in four and a half minutes.

Because all the furniture in the living room had
ignited, the blaze went from a fuel-controlled fire to a
ventilation-controlled fire-or what scientists call
"post-flashover." During post-flashover, the path of the
fire depends on new sources of oxygen, from an open door
or window. One of the fire investigators, who had been
standing by an open door in the living room, escaped
moments before the oxygen-starved fire roared out of the
room into the hallway-a fireball that caused the
corridor to go quickly into flashover as well,
propelling the fire out the front door and onto the

After the fire was extinguished, the investigators
inspected the hallway and living room. On the floor were
irregularly shaped burn patterns that perfectly
resembled pour patterns and puddle configurations. It
turned out that these classic signs of arson can also
appear on their own, after flashover. With the naked
eye, it is impossible to distinguish between the pour
patterns and puddle configurations caused by an
accelerant and those caused naturally by post-flashover.
The only reliable way to tell the difference is to take
samples from the burn patterns and test them in a
laboratory for the presence of flammable or combustible

During the Lime Street experiment, other things happened
that were supposed to occur only in a fire fuelled by
liquid accelerant: charring along the base of the walls
and doorways, and burning under furniture. There was
also a V-shaped pattern by the living-room doorway, far
from where the fire had started on the couch. In a small
fire, a V-shaped burn mark may pinpoint where a fire
began, but during post-flashover these patterns can
occur repeatedly, when various objects ignite.

One of the investigators muttered that they had just
helped prove the defense's case. Given the reasonable
doubt raised by the experiment, the charges against
Lewis were soon dropped. The Lime Street experiment had
demolished prevailing notions about fire behavior.
Subsequent tests by scientists showed that, during post-
flashover, burning under beds and furniture was common,
entire doors were consumed, and aluminum thresholds

John Lentini says of the Lime Street Fire, "This was my
epiphany. I almost sent a man to die based on theories
that were a load of crap."

Hurst next examined a floor plan of Willingham's house
that Vasquez had drawn, which delineated all the
purported pour patterns and puddle configurations.
Because the windows had blown out of the children's
room, Hurst knew that the fire had reached flashover.
With his finger, Hurst traced along Vasquez's diagram
the burn trailer that had gone from the children's room,
turned right in the hallway, and headed out the front
door. John Jackson, the prosecutor, had told me that the
path was so "bizarre" that it had to have been caused by
a liquid accelerant. But Hurst concluded that it was a
natural product of the dynamics of fire during post-
flashover. Willingham had fled out the front door, and
the fire simply followed the ventilation path, toward
the opening. Similarly, when Willingham had broken the
windows in the children's room, flames had shot outward.

Hurst recalled that Vasquez and Fogg had considered it
impossible for Willingham to have run down the burning
hallway without scorching his bare feet. But if the pour
patterns and puddle configurations were a result of a
flashover, Hurst reasoned, then they were consonant with
Willingham's explanation of events. When Willingham
exited his bedroom, the hallway was not yet on fire; the
flames were contained within the children's bedroom,
where, along the ceiling, he saw the "bright lights."
Just as the investigator safely stood by the door in the
Lime Street experiment seconds before flashover,
Willingham could have stood close to the children's room
without being harmed. (Prior to the Lime Street case,
fire investigators had generally assumed that carbon
monoxide diffuses quickly through a house during a fire.
In fact, up until flashover, levels of carbon monoxide
can be remarkably low beneath and outside the thermal
cloud.) By the time the Corsicana fire achieved
flashover, Willingham had already fled outside and was
in the front yard.

Vasquez had made a videotape of the fire scene, and
Hurst looked at the footage of the burn trailer. Even
after repeated viewings, he could not detect three
points of origin, as Vasquez had. (Fogg recently told me
that he also saw a continuous trailer and disagreed with
Vasquez, but added that nobody from the prosecution or
the defense ever asked him on the stand about his
opinion on the subject.)

After Hurst had reviewed Fogg and Vasquez's list of more
than twenty arson indicators, he believed that only one
had any potential validity: the positive test for
mineral spirits by the threshold of the front door. But
why had the fire investigators obtained a positive
reading only in that location? According to Fogg and
Vasquez's theory of the crime, Willingham had poured
accelerant throughout the children's bedroom and down
the hallway. Officials had tested extensively in these
areas-including where all the pour patterns and puddle
configurations were-and turned up nothing. Jackson told
me that he "never did understand why they weren't able
to recover" positive tests in these parts.

Hurst found it hard to imagine Willingham pouring
accelerant on the front porch, where neighbors could
have seen him. Scanning the files for clues, Hurst
noticed a photograph of the porch taken before the fire,
which had been entered into evidence. Sitting on the
tiny porch was a charcoal grill. The porch was where the
family barbecued. Court testimony from witnesses
confirmed that there had been a grill, along with a
container of lighter fluid, and that both had burned
when the fire roared onto the porch during post-
flashover. By the time Vasquez inspected the house, the
grill had been removed from the porch, during cleanup.
Though he cited the container of lighter fluid in his
report, he made no mention of the grill. At the trial,
he insisted that he had never been told of the grill's
earlier placement. Other authorities were aware of the
grill but did not see its relevance. Hurst, however, was
convinced that he had solved the mystery: when
firefighters had blasted the porch with water, they had
likely spread charcoal-lighter fluid from the melted

Without having visited the fire scene, Hurst says, it
was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But,
based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was
an accidental fire-one caused most likely by the space
heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why
there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst
concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that
a man who had already lost his three children and spent
twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on
"junk science." Hurst wrote his report in such a rush
that he didn't pause to fix the typos.


"I am a realist and I will not live a fantasy,"
Willingham once told Gilbert about the prospect of
proving his innocence. But in February, 2004, he began
to have hope. Hurst's findings had helped to exonerate
more than ten people. Hurst even reviewed the scientific
evidence against Willingham's friend Ernest Willis, who
had been on death row for the strikingly similar arson
charge. Hurst says, "It was like I was looking at the
same case. Just change the names." In his report on the
Willis case, Hurst concluded that not "a single item of
physical evidence . . . supports a finding of arson." A
second fire expert hired by Ori White, the new district
attorney in Willis's district, concurred. After
seventeen years on death row, Willis was set free. "I
don't turn killers loose," White said at the time. "If
Willis was guilty, I'd be retrying him right now. And
I'd use Hurst as my witness. He's a brilliant
scientist." White noted how close the system had come to
murdering an innocent man. "He did not get executed, and
I thank God for that," he said.

On February 13th, four days before Willingham was
scheduled to be executed, he got a call from Reaves, his
attorney. Reaves told him that the fifteen members of
the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews an
application for clemency and had been sent Hurst's
report, had made their decision.

"What is it?" Willingham asked.

"I'm sorry," Reaves said. "They denied your petition."

The vote was unanimous. Reaves could not offer an
explanation: the board deliberates in secret, and its
members are not bound by any specific criteria. The
board members did not even have to review Willingham's
materials, and usually don't debate a case in person;
rather, they cast their votes by fax-a process that has
become known as "death by fax." Between 1976 and 2004,
when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas
had approved only one application for clemency from a
prisoner on death row. A Texas appellate judge has
called the clemency system "a legal fiction." Reaves
said of the board members, "They never asked me to
attend a hearing or answer any questions."

The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of
Information Act, all the records from the governor's
office and the board pertaining to Hurst's report. "The
documents show that they received the report, but
neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging
it, taking note of its significance, responding to it,
or calling any attention to it within the government,"
Barry Scheck said. "The only reasonable conclusion is
that the governor's office and the Board of Pardons and
Paroles ignored scientific evidence."

LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the
time, told me of the process, "You don't vote guilt or
innocence. You don't retry the trial. You just make sure
everything is in order and there are no glaring errors."
He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing
to consider important new evidence, "in my time there
had never been one called." When I asked him why Hurst's
report didn't constitute evidence of "glaring errors,"
he said, "We get all kinds of reports, but we don't have
the mechanisms to vet them." Alvin Shaw, another board
member at the time, said that the case didn't "ring a
bell," adding, angrily, "Why would I want to talk about
it?" Hurst calls the board's actions "unconscionable."

Though Reaves told Willingham that there was still a
chance that Governor Perry might grant a thirty-day
stay, Willingham began to prepare his last will and
testament. He had earlier written Stacy a letter
apologizing for not being a better husband and thanking
her for everything she had given him, especially their
three daughters. "I still know Amber's voice, her smile,
her cool Dude saying and how she said: I wanna hold you!
Still feel the touch of Karmon and Kameron's hands on my
face." He said that he hoped that "some day, somehow the
truth will be known and my name cleared."

He asked Stacy if his tombstone could be erected next to
their children's graves. Stacy, who had for so long
expressed belief in Willingham's innocence, had recently
taken her first look at the original court records and
arson findings. Unaware of Hurst's report, she had
determined that Willingham was guilty. She denied him
his wish, later telling a reporter, "He took my kids
away from me."

Gilbert felt as if she had failed Willingham. Even
before his pleas for clemency were denied, she told him
that all she could give him was her friendship. He told
her that it was enough "to be a part of your life in
some small way so that in my passing I can know I was at
last able to have felt the heart of another who might
remember me when I'm gone." He added, "There is nothing
to forgive you for." He told her that he would need her
to be present at his execution, to help him cope with
"my fears, thoughts, and feelings."

On February 17th, the day he was set to die,
Willingham's parents and several relatives gathered in
the prison visiting room. Plexiglas still separated
Willingham from them. "I wish I could touch and hold
both of you," Willingham had written to them earlier. "I
always hugged Mom but I never hugged Pop much."

As Willingham looked at the group, he kept asking where
Gilbert was. Gilbert had recently been driving home from
a store when another car ran a red light and smashed
into her. Willingham used to tell her to stay in her
kitchen for a day, without leaving, to comprehend what
it was like to be confined in prison, but she had always
found an excuse not to do it. Now she was paralyzed from
the neck down.

While she was in an intensive-care unit, she had tried
to get a message to Willingham, but apparently failed.
Gilbert's daughter later read her a letter that
Willingham had sent her, telling her how much he had
grown to love her. He had written a poem: "Do you want
to see beauty-like you have never seen? / Then close
your eyes, and open your mind, and come along with me."

Gilbert, who spent years in physical rehabilitation,
gradually regaining motion in her arms and upper body,
says, "All that time, I thought I was saving Willingham,
and I realized then that he was saving me, giving me the
strength to get through this. I know I will one day walk
again, and I know it is because Willingham showed me the
kind of courage it takes to survive."

Willingham had requested a final meal, and at 4 P.M. on
the seventeenth he was served it: three barbecued pork
ribs, two orders of onion rings, fried okra, three beef
enchiladas with cheese, and two slices of lemon cream
pie. He received word that Governor Perry had refused to
grant him a stay. (A spokesperson for Perry says, "The
Governor made his decision based on the facts of the
case.") Willingham's mother and father began to cry.
"Don't be sad, Momma," Willingham said. "In fifty-five
minutes, I'm a free man. I'm going home to see my kids."
Earlier, he had confessed to his parents that there was
one thing about the day of the fire he had lied about.
He said that he had never actually crawled into the
children's room. "I just didn't want people to think I
was a coward," he said. Hurst told me, "People who have
never been in a fire don't understand why those who
survive often can't rescue the victims. They have no
concept of what a fire is like."

The warden told Willingham that it was time. Willingham,
refusing to assist the process, lay down; he was carried
into a chamber eight feet wide and ten feet long. The
walls were painted green, and in the center of the room,
where an electric chair used to be, was a sheeted
gurney. Several guards strapped Willingham down with
leather belts, snapping buckles across his arms and legs
and chest. A medical team then inserted intravenous
tubes into his arms. Each official had a separate role
in the process, so that no one person felt responsible
for taking a life.

Willingham had asked that his parents and family not be
present in the gallery during this process, but as he
looked out he could see Stacy watching. The warden
pushed a remote control, and sodium thiopental, a
barbiturate, was pumped into Willingham's body. Then
came a second drug, pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes
the diaphragm, making it impossible to breathe. Finally,
a third drug, potassium chloride, filled his veins,
until his heart stopped, at 6:20 P.M. On his death
certificate, the cause was listed as "Homicide."

After his death, his parents were allowed to touch his
face for the first time in more than a decade. Later, at
Willingham's request, they cremated his body and
secretly spread some of his ashes over his children's
graves. He had told his parents, "Please don't ever stop
fighting to vindicate me."

In December, 2004, questions about the scientific
evidence in the Willingham case began to surface.
Maurice Possley and Steve Mills, of the Chicago Tribune,
had published an investigative series on flaws in
forensic science; upon learning of Hurst's report,
Possley and Mills asked three fire experts, including
John Lentini, to examine the original investigation. The
experts concurred with Hurst's report. Nearly two years
later, the Innocence Project commissioned Lentini and
three other top fire investigators to conduct an
independent review of the arson evidence in the
Willingham case. The panel concluded that "each and
every one" of the indicators of arson had been
"scientifically proven to be invalid."

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to
investigate allegations of error and misconduct by
forensic scientists. The first cases that are being
reviewed by the commission are those of Willingham and
Willis. In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig
Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his
investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that
investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific
basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored
evidence that contradicted their theory, had no
comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on
discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential
accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said
that Vasquez's approach seemed to deny "rational
reasoning" and was more "characteristic of mystics or
psychics." What's more, Beyler determined that the
investigation violated, as he put it to me, "not only
the standards of today but even of the time period." The
commission is reviewing his findings, and plans to
release its own report next year. Some legal scholars
believe that the commission may narrowly assess the
reliability of the scientific evidence. There is a
chance, however, that Texas could become the first state
to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the
modern judicial system, it had carried out the
"execution of a legally and factually innocent person."

Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he
was asked if he had any last words. He said, "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 twelve 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." ?


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