On December 23, 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham was at home with his three children. Willingham later recalled waking up to the cries of his 2 year-old daughter, and found his house filled with smoke and flames. Willingham remembered frantically trying to reach his daughters in their room, but he could not find them. During his search, his hair caught on fire, and debris fell from the ceiling, burning his shoulder. He fled his burning home through the front door. His three children did not survive the fire.
Willingham was almost immediately suspected of arson. During Willingham’s trial, the lead arson investigator testified that the fire had been deliberately set and pointed to evidence, including specific burn patterns in the home. The arson investigators believed that Willingham had used an accelerant to set the fire and that he had deliberately blocked the exits of the home so the children could not escape.
Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992. In 2004, the State of Texas executed Willingham.
Willingham could have accepted a plea agreement and received a life sentence, but he declined, maintaining his innocence. Tragically, the truth about his innocence was discovered before his execution, but Governor Rick Perry did not take any action to stay the execution.
After Willingham’s conviction, each example of arson presented to convict him was found to be scientifically invalid when reviewed by other arson experts, who determined that the fire was accidental.
In 2009, David Grann of the New Yorker published a thorough report on Willingham’s conviction and the likelihood of his innocence. As Willingham’s case shows, executing an innocent person is not just a possibility, but a terrible reality. Mistakes happen. When the death penalty is on the table, even a minor error can lead to the irreversible execution of an innocent person. Replacing the Kansas death penalty with life without parole would ensure that an innocent person could never be executed in Kansas.