Mike Wiser & Michael Kirk
PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, the story of a fire.
CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM: My little girl was crying, "Daddy! Daddy!" When I woke up, the whole house was in smoke!
ANNOUNCER: A man accused.
DAVID MARTIN, Defense Attorney: He was guilty. He really set that fire and killed those kids.
ANNOUNCER: An execution.
VICKY PRATER, Bar Owner: It's really a shame we couldn't put him to death three times, since he took three lives.
ANNOUNCER: And a question of guilt-
GERALD HURST, Ph.D., Arson Expert: There is not one iota of evidence that the fire was arson.
ANNOUNCER: -that sparked a national debate.
JOHN LENTINI, Arson Expert: The state of Texas executed a man for a crime that they couldn't prove was really a crime.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, Death by Fire.
BOB BELCHER, Radio Reporter: It's small-town America. It's football games on Friday nights.
RESIDENT: Everybody gets along. Everybody knows everybody. This is a nice country community.
VICKY PRATER, Bar Owner: Corsicana is a wonderful place to live, but every town has their bad people in it. And bad things happen in every town. So we're no different from anybody else.
DIANE BARBEE, Neighbor: It was the 23rd of December. The Price Is Right was on. That's what I was watching. Two or three of the girls went out on the back patio and come running in the house and said, "Momma, I think Sheila's house is on fire." I run to the front and out the door, and that's when I seen Todd at his front door. And he started screaming, "My babies. Oh, my babies! My babies are burning!"
NARRATOR: Their neighbor, 23-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham, was in the house with his three children when the fire started.
BURVIN TERRY SMITH, Retired Firefighter: A call came across the scanner there was a house fire with possibly people trapped in it.
BRANDICE BARBEE, Neighbor: I remember my mom screaming, "Go back in! Go- go try to get the babies!"
BURVIN TERRY SMITH: And I grabbed him and I said, "Is there anybody in the house?" He said, "Yes, my twins are in that room right there." Well, I went in the front door and went to the left, and that's as far as I could get. It was completely engulfed in fire.
RON FRANKS, Firefighter: I pulled up on the scene, got out immediately, started stretching the fire line. And I made entry into the house through the front windows, knocking the fire down as I went.
BOB BELCHER: The first fire fighter came out. He was cradling a small child in his arms, and he began to drop to one knee. And as he began to drop to one knee, the little girl's arm just- just fell- fell limp right at her side, just- you know, just like a little rag doll.
RON FRANKS: I went back to the fire room looking for the children. At that time, Chief Fogg was in there, and he had already located the children, but they were both dead.
NARRATOR: Firefighters tried to save 2-year-old Amber, but she died shortly after reaching the hospital. All three children - Amber, Karmon and Kameron - were dead. Their mother, Stacy, was Christmas shopping at a thrift store when the police told her.
NEWSCASTER: In the blackened ugliness, there are remnants of a fire. There are remnants of Christmas, as well, a melted Christmas tree with a few ornaments, a teddy bear still waiting for Christmas morning. And there are two parents who want this Christmas to go away.
CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM: My little girl was crying, "Daddy! Daddy!" And when I woke up, the whole house was in smoke!
NARRATOR: Todd Willingham was virtually unharmed.
JIMMIE HENSLEY, Police Investigator: He did have some minor burns on his shoulder, and his hair was singed. To me, it just was not- the injuries were not consistent with being in a burning house that was supposedly burning so bad that- that he had to get out and couldn't find his kids.
NARRATOR: Around town, in Corsicana, Texas, Willingham's lack of serious injuries and a night of partying after the fire fueled rumors.
JOHN JACKSON, Prosecutor: Immediately after the children were killed in the fire, he was seen at a local bar, essentially exhibiting behavior that was completely inconsistent with a person who had lost his three children.
VICKY PRATER: When the Willingham children died, several of us thought it would be a good idea if we did a benefit dart tournament to raise funds to help with their burial. Todd and Stacy Willingham showed up the night that we had the tournament. Todd got too involved in the fun.
JOHN JACKSON: And he was heard to brag to others that he wouldn't have anything to worry about now because the money would start rolling in because people would feel sorry for him.
VICKY PRATER: He showed a great interest in a new pair of darts, and that really kind of shocked me. I thought, "Well, you know, I'm really not going to let you give me back the money that I just gave you for a new pair of darts." So I just gave them to him so that he wouldn't lose the money that I wanted him to spend on those funerals.
NARRATOR: The police launched an investigation. Todd Willingham was the primary suspect.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: You got to count his actions before and after. You got to count his actions during the fire, and things like that that makes the whole story. Not just one little segment of it, it's every bit of the story.
NARRATOR: The police had been to Willingham's house before.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: We'd been over to Todd's house where he'd got physical with the wife, Stacy, on a couple occasions.
DIANE BARBEE: He was a very mean man. He beat on Stacy all the time. I mean- you know, I mean, this was, like, every day.
JOHN JACKSON: They could hear the impact of him hitting his wife, and his wife hitting the floor, his statements to her that were- could be overheard throughout the neighborhood. "Don't get up, bitch, or I'll hit you again."
DIANE BARBEE: I figured he would kill Stacy, you know? That's how bad it was. You know, something terrible is going to happen and he will eventually kill her.
NARRATOR: Witnesses who had been at the fire also told police that Willingham did nothing to rescue his children.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: Once he got outside, I cannot find anybody who actually said he made an attempt to get back in to save his kids.
DIANE BARBEE: He didn't try to go back in. Not one time.
BRANDICE BARBEE: He wasn't attempting to go back in. He wasn't attempting to do anything.
JIMMIE HENSLEY, Police Investigator: Putting that whole picture together made me believe that he was guilty of homicide, that he killed his three little girls. And my job was to find how them little girls died. And if it is an act, a criminal act, it's my job to build a case so he can be prosecuted for his act.
NARRATOR: As soon as the fire was out, the search for the cause of the blaze began.
DOUGLAS FOGG, Assistant Fire Chief: [Arson investigation video] 1213 West 11th. I'm Doug Fogg, assistant fire chief. This will be the interior-
NARRATOR: Investigators came to believe that this was a crime scene.
DOUGLAS FOGG: You start by eliminating accidental causes.
[Arson investigation video] We go back to where the breaker box is. We see wiring again. No evidence of shorting.
When you get through with your accidental causes, what's left?
NARRATOR: They figured the fire had started on the floor. They were looking for evidence that something flammable might have been poured there.
DOUGLAS FOGG: [Arson investigation video] Unusual to a normal fire burn.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: In the kids', children's room there, there were signs of what we thought was an accelerant poured on the floor. Usually, accelerants will leak through the cracks of the floors and burn underneath. And fire burns up.
NARRATOR: Then at the door to the porch, investigators found what they were looking for.
DOUGLAS FOGG: There was an unusual burn pattern on the aluminum threshold plate, which indicates that something had been introduced, poured down, leaked through. We took a sample of that and it came back as a positive sample for charcoal lighter fluid. And I'm thinking that's the first time I called it arson.
NARRATOR: The official state report on the fire listed 20 indicators of arson. The investigators were now convinced.
DOUGLAS FOGG: [Arson investigation video] This concludes this tape of 1213 West 11th.
NARRATOR: The police called in Todd Willingham.
MONTE WILLINGHAM, Half-Brother: My dad told him to go down there and give a statement. And when he went and give a statement, he talks too much. And I don't know what all he said, but whatever he said, that started it.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: Just his whole demeanor to me looked like it- he just wanted to tell a story. More like- it was more he was bragging about it than, you know, being remorseful. He was more like he was proud of his actions that he claimed he tried to do to save his kids and stuff.
DOUGLAS FOGG: Willingham said he heard the oldest one calling "Daddy," and went into the bedroom and crawled around on the floor because the smoke was so thick and stuff, looking for the babies, but he was unable to find them.
NARRATOR: But Officer Hensley wasn't buying the story.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: After a while in this business, you get to judge people by their actions and their looks, you know. And you're not 100 percent right, but usually, it's a good thing to go on. Just looking at his eyes, I didn't see any type of remorse or sympathy in them.
NARRATOR: And Willingham's story didn't seem to square up with his lack of injuries.
[www.pbs.org: Willingham's police statement]
JIMMIE HENSLEY: He was barefoot when he come out and he had no burns on his feet. But we could see where there was burns in the hallway, and we couldn't figure out how he got out without burning his feet.
NARRATOR: Detectives pushed Willingham to confess. They even used pictures of his dead children.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: Todd didn't show any remorse through the interview until I actually showed him the pictures of his children. And at that time, he started crying. You know, I don't think he was sad so much that he killed the kids as much as that it's coming to light that, you know, he's a suspect in it.
NARRATOR: They charged him with murder. Bail was set at a million dollars. They offered him a deal: confess and avoid the death penalty. His court-appointed attorney, David Martin, urged him to take the plea.
DAVID MARTIN, Defense Attorney: If all the evidence is overwhelming that the person is guilty of the crime charged, and the chances of introducing reasonable doubt are slim to none, in your professional opinion, of course you'd rather have him accept a life sentence and save his life.
NARRATOR: Despite the pressure, Willingham refused to plead guilty. He'd take his chances in front of a jury.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM, Stepmother: He wouldn't plead guilty. He was very adamant. He said they could kill him right then and there.
NARRATOR: The case went to trial in August of 1992. The prosecution began with a surprising witness, a jailhouse informant.
JOHN JACKSON: There was the testimony of Johnny Webb, who had been incarcerated at the same time as Willingham and who testified that Willingham had confessed.
JOHNNY WEBB, Witness: He said, "Well, you know, I can't deal with what I've done." And I said, "What are you talking about?" And that's when he confessed to what he'd done.
NARRATOR: And Webb told prosecutors something else.
JOHN JACKSON, Prosecutor: Willingham admitted to him that he spread the accelerant on the floor in the children's room in sort of a pentagram or a star-shaped pattern.
NARRATOR: A pentagram. To the prosecutor, it was a symbol for Satan worship, and he offered posters found in Willingham's room as proof.
JOHN JACKSON: It was a poster of an iron bar being driven through a person's head, and there was some indication that it was some sort of a satanist image.
NARRATOR: And prosecutors called Willingham's wife, Stacy, who reluctantly testified about the abuse.
JIMMIE HENSLEY, Police Investigator: Stacy admitted that he abused her and beat on her. And she stayed, hoping that it would change, but it never did.
MONTE WILLINGHAM: You got three little girls' lives involved. They showed these kids to the jury. And you hear his past. You see that. And the judge tells them to do what they need to be doing. I mean, I don't know how more- how much more could you stack it against him, do you?
VICKY PRATER, Bar Owner: There's plenty of people walking around in Corsicana, Texas, that if that happened to them today, they would get the benefit of the doubt because they had treated their family in a respectful manner and taken care of them, OK? Todd Willingham had not treated his family in a respected manner, and he didn't get the benefit of the doubt that some people would have.
NARRATOR: The trial lasted three days. It only took an hour for the jury to find Willingham guilty. He was sentenced to death.
DAVID MARTIN: You know, I've been criticized by some because I've said that, of course, I thought he was guilty. How stupid would you be, how incompetent would you be as a defense attorney if you just went in and swallowed the story the defendant gave you? The real fact of the matter is that Willingham was guilty. He wasn't innocent. He really set that fire and killed those kids.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: I feel like justice was served for those three little girls. It was a jury of 12 people of this community who determined that- with all the evidence presented to them, that he was guilty. And that's the way the system works
NARRATOR: Willingham was taken to the Texas state prison at Huntsville to await his execution.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: He said the worst thing in the world is to be accused of what he is accused of and to be found guilty of that, and then have to go to death row and live with that.
MONTE WILLINGHAM: When he was in death row, they would step on his heels, you know, and trip him and call him "baby killer" and everything else, you know?
NARRATOR: Willingham sat on death row for seven years. His appeals were going nowhere. There was little interest in his case. Then inmate number 999041 received a letter. It was from 47-year-old Elizabeth Gilbert.
ELIZABETH GILBERT, Writer: Someone asked me if I would like to write a man on death row, be a pen pal, and I was, like, "Sure," and I volunteered. I had been in a place in my life- a relationship had ended, my parents were getting elderly, I was kind of adrift. The name that was given to me, just randomly, was Todd Willingham.
NARRATOR: Willingham eagerly wrote back.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: And I was just really struck by the letter from Todd. It was very polite. It was very kind.
NARRATOR: Gilbert wanted to know more about Willingham. She decided to meet him face to face.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: I walked in expecting to see a black man- you know, the whole stereotype. And here was this handsome young white man who was very polite and very genial.
NARRATOR: Willingham told her his version of what happened at the fire.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: The story he told me was, you know, this- he woke up to a fire. You know, he ran out of the house, couldn't get back in to save his children. There's a writer in me that was, like, "This is a great story."
NARRATOR: Gilbert decided to find out for herself who Todd Willingham really was. His story began in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: Todd's mother had several children by different fathers, and Todd had been abandoned in California.
NARRATOR: Todd's father, Gene, had remarried. His wife, Eugenia, raised Todd as her own.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: We got Todd when he was 13 months old. I thought maybe he might be anxious and cry, but he just crawled up in my lap and that was it. He acted like he'd always lived here. He had a way of telling you how he felt. He never came into a room when he didn't hug my neck.
NARRATOR: It was a different story with Todd's father.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: My husband always said that I wasn't hard enough on him, so that had made him have to be doubly hard.
MONTE WILLINGHAM: He's the type of guy that- just that you can't do anything right, and everything's wrong. Let's say that he has a hammer there, and you borrow it and you put it back. That's good, but it's not good enough if it's not facing the same way.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: His father was very strict. And Todd knew this, but it didn't stop him from doing some things that he got in trouble for.
NARRATOR: Todd struggled in school, and Gilbert was surprised to learn that by the 6th grade, he was already using drugs. He liked to inhale the aerosol from spray paint cans.
MONTE WILLINGHAM: I think he started huffing paint when he was 11 and started on drugs at 11.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: You know, I'd see signs and I'd ask him, and he'd blame it on the other kids, you know? He did have a hard time finally admitting to me that it was him, that he was doing it. And then he told me that was the sweetest high he ever experienced in his life.
MONTE WILLINGHAM: His mind kind of stayed there. To me, his thinking ability always stayed at 11, 12, 13, along in there.
NARRATOR: During his trial, prosecutors claimed that as Willingham got older, he began to commit increasingly violent crimes.
JIMMIE HENSLEY: He would have him a gang. He would recruit younger kids that he could intimidate and send them out to pull the burglaries and bring the loot back to him, and then he would pay them off in drugs.
NARRATOR: And jurors heard that Willingham was a violent sociopath.
JOHN JACKSON: He was an individual with essentially no redeeming values. This was his crowning achievement as a psychopath, the murder of his three children.
NARRATOR: In fact, psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson testified Willingham was a severe sociopath. Grigson had testified in more than 100 death penalty cases, earning the nickname "Dr. Death."
ELIZABETH GILBERT: He's hired to come in and make sure that they get the death penalty by assuring the jury that, you know, this person would be just- you know, has to be removed from society.
NARRATOR: Gilbert discovered that Grigson had never met Willingham. But those who actually knew Todd said he was hardly a violent criminal.
POLLY GOODIN, Probation Officer: I just didn't see that person. That's not the Todd that I knew. Todd had been arrested for tampering with an automobile. In other words, he had opened the door of a vehicle and not gotten any further. By the time he opened the door, the police were already on site.
BEBE BRIDGES, Judge: I put him in jail, I think, on his 18th birthday because he had screwed up again. And I said, "I have tried to save your ass, and now I'm going to put your ass in jail so you can't enjoy your 18th birthday. You're going to go to jail for the weekend," or whatever it was. I don't remember the details. He wasn't a sociopath. He wasn't a psychopath. He did stupid crap like steal bikes.
NARRATOR: And in Todd's teenage love of heavy metal music, Gilbert found an explanation for those satanic posters. They were from the rock bands Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden.
SHERRY COOLEY, Friend: We had posters of Iron Maiden hanging in our house, too. My ex-husband probably still has his Iron Maiden posters, you know, at 40. He- they were Iron Maiden fans. So what?
ELIZABETH GILBERT: What they looked at were posters on the wall, which are the typical posters that young men listen to, heavy metal, that he smoked pot, you know, that he had this, you know, horrible past of crime, which turned out to be shoplifting, you know, and a bicycle.
NARRATOR: Gilbert followed Todd's trail from Oklahoma to Texas. He'd moved to Corsicana to be with his girlfriend, Stacy. They'd met while she was still in high school, and before long had three children under the age of 2.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM, Stepmother: He changed their diapers and took care of them and did everything that they needed, and he made them a lot of macaroni and cheese. He did a lot of cooking for them.
NARRATOR: Stacy wound up waitressing at her brother's bar while Todd stayed home with the kids.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: I know they struggled that year, trying to take care of three babies. And it was very hard. You know, I can't imagine.
MONTE WILLINGHAM, Half-Brother: I'd say, to the girls he was a real good dad. But as far as going out and providing a nice home, nice job for the family, and being a family provider like you're supposed to, I'd say he didn't.
NARRATOR: Todd and Stacy's relationship deteriorated into abuse.
SHERRY COOLEY: When you have three little kids and you're stuck in the house always on together, and your friends are out doing stuff- I think that was part of Todd and Stacy's problem, you know? Three little kids and you're poor, and you get bored and start picking at each other.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: I never saw Stacy with black eyes. I did see Todd with bite marks on his arm. I know they had fights. I know they didn't get along. I talked to both of them about it. I really talked to Todd about it. And he said, "Momma, I had to take up for myself."
NARRATOR: Nevertheless, only three months before the fire, Todd and Stacy decided to get married.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: He told me, he said, "I'm going to try to do what's right. I'm going to try to make this work and we're going to get married." And he said, "I know it's going to be hard, but that's what I should do."
NARRATOR: Todd would have to change his ways. He had a reputation as a ladies' man.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: Stacy wasn't the only girl in his life, I'm sorry to say. Todd acted like he really cared for Stacy, but he acted like he cared for other girls, too.
NARRATOR: There was one woman in particular.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: She was an older woman that I didn't approve of at all. She was a neighbor that lived across the street and had children his age.
NARRATOR: When he married Stacy, Todd ended the relationship.
BARBARA MOTE, Former Neighbor: When he come and told me that he had married Stacy, it- it broke my heart because I knew I was losing at that time the love of my life, my soul mate and- but I knew why he was doing it. And I could not ask him to walk away from his kids because he couldn't do it. I wouldn't do that to him because I knew how much he loved them.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: He had other choices. But he- he chose his children.
NARRATOR: After the fire, Stacy stood by Todd, insisting he was innocent. But when he was sent to prison, she started a new life.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: After the conviction and after Todd was on death row, Stacy decided to get a divorce. She didn't visit him on death row.
NARRATOR: Elizabeth Gilbert found Stacy in Corsicana.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: I told her I was a writer, I was from Houston. I interviewed her. I taped her. And she was very- seemed kind of reserved, nervous, just a person who'd had a lot of tragedy in her life.
STACY WILLINGHAM: He used to beat me real bad. He just had a temper, I guess. I mean- and I was stupid for putting up with it. But the first time he ever hit me-
NARRATOR: Todd had begged Stacy to visit him, but she refused.
STACY WILLINGHAM: At first, I didn't go in there when they, you know, convicted him. I didn't want to be in there. You know, I was tired of it. We were just, you know, threatening each other, arguing back and forth through writing, and I just filed for divorce.
NARRATOR: Nevertheless, Stacy said she didn't believe Todd was capable of killing the children.
STACY WILLINGHAM: He was mean to me, but I always said, you know, he may beat me, he may kill me, but he would never do nothing to the kids. And I always knew that, you know? They were his kids. He never hurt the kids, you know? I mean, but me, that was a whole different story.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: She really convinced me that she felt that an injustice had been done. My sense in the interview was, like, she- she left me with the opinion that Todd was innocent, you know, because she didn't feel like he had done that. She didn't feel like he was capable of doing that.
NARRATOR: Now Gilbert wanted to sort out the other evidence.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: I went up to Austin and got the records of the trial. I'm in, you know, copying these records. I'm reading these reports.
NARRATOR: She dug into the story of that jailhouse informant.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: A red flag to me was Johnny Webb. The idea that a prisoner would confess to a complete stranger, you know, that he had committed a crime just didn't- I just didn't buy that.
[www.pbs.org: Read the trial transcript]
NARRATOR: Webb had a reputation as a troubled young man with a long history of felony arrests.
JOHN JACKSON, Prosecutor: We decided to use his testimony, even though his credibility was subject to attack. We felt that he had no real reason to lie about this particular- what we'd term a jailhouse confession.
NARRATOR: Gilbert decided to talk to Webb in person. She found him serving 15 years. He stood by his story.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: He was a very nervous young man. I wouldn't have- had I been sitting, you know, on the jury, I couldn't have bought his testimony.
NARRATOR: Later, her suspicions about Webb were confirmed when he sent this letter to prosecutors recanting his testimony and declaring Willingham's innocence. And then he changed that story, recanting the recantation. And now he doesn't remember any of it.
JOHNNY WEBB, Witness: I don't remember. Maybe I did. Maybe it's because what everything I was going through. I told them I was going to recant if someone doesn't help me because they was trying to kill me. You know what I'm saying? Something to put some pressure on somebody to do something to get me out of where I was at.
[www.pbs.org: More on Gilbert's investigation]
NARRATOR: As Willingham's execution date neared, there were other problems Gilbert could not overcome. She learned Willingham had lied to investigators about his attempts to rescue the children.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: I think the big secret that he was carrying was the guilt. In his mind, he couldn't acknowledge that he didn't, you know, try to save his children, so he concocted the story that he, you know, tried to go in and find the babies and couldn't.
SHERRY COOLEY: And he said, "What I'm guilty of is being a coward." He said, "I should have died in that house with my kids." But he said, "It doesn't matter what people say, you can't let yourself catch on fire without trying to get away. And you can sit and say every day, I would burn up before I let my kids die in a fire," he said, "it's not humanly possible."
NARRATOR: And the biggest challenge remained, that evidence of arson. Gilbert had never been able to get an arson expert to examine the state's findings.
And then just three months before the execution, Gilbert was in an automobile accident.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: I remember flying forward, and I heard someone scream in the back seat. And I'm all by myself, but it was me screaming in the back seat, but it came from behind me. I remember the doctor coming to me and saying, "Well, it's confirmed. Your neck is broken. You may be like this for the rest of your life."
NARRATOR: Paralyzed, Gilbert could no longer visit Willingham.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: You know, it was impossible for me to go. I was incapable of that sort of travel, you know, sitting in a chair that long, driving to Huntsville. And it just wouldn't have happened.
NARRATOR: Gilbert's investigation was over.
ARSON INVESTIGATION VIDEO: -under the windows, the low burn, the concrete-
NARRATOR: In the 12 years since Willingham's conviction, one fact had remained unquestioned, the fire was an arson.
ARSON INVESTIGATION VIDEO: Burn patterns unusual to a normal fire burn.
NARRATOR: But during those years, there had been a dramatic change in the science of arson investigation.
JOHN LENTINI, Arson Expert: The fire investigation community largely consists of people who are firemen. They're not scientists. They don't have any formal scientific training. Extinguishing a fire and investigating a fire involve two different skill sets and two different mindsets.
NARRATOR: John Lentini is at the top of his field, one of a small group who reinvented the science of arson detection.
JOHN LENTINI: So many determinations were based on hunches and feelings. And these guys, they talk about, "Oh, you got to get in there and feel the beast." Oh! I'm just embarrassed for their profession that this is the way people evaluate physical evidence.
NARRATOR: The change in arson science began when scientists set their own fires and studied how they burned.
GERALD HURST, Ph.D., Arson Expert: That was the first time science was ever really introduced into the mainstream of fire investigation.
NARRATOR: Like Lentini, Dr. Gerald Hurst was one of the new fire scientists.
JOHN LENTINI: Gerald Hurst is a chemist extraordinaire with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.
MICHAEL HALL, Texas Monthly: He's the idiosyncratic godfather of modern arson science. He's like this mad scientist who's not mad at all.
NARRATOR: For years, Willingham's supporters had tried to enlist Hurst's help. They finally gave him the state's arson report only weeks before the scheduled execution.
GERALD HURST: Taking a look at the photographs and video and testimony and fire investigation report, it became apparent that we were dealing with a fire which had gone to flashover.
NARRATOR: Flashover- the instant ignition of all combustible material in a room.
GERALD HURST: Flashover had left natural patterns on the floor that all post-flashover fires tend to leave behind, and these had been misidentified as pour patterns. And thus the fire had been labeled an arson.
NARRATOR: Hurst reviewed the report line by line.
GERALD HURST: Here's your first bit of so-called arson evidence. This was typically interpreted in the old days as "a pour pattern." In other words, someone poured gasoline or some other accelerant down the hallway, out the front door and then ignited it.
The prosecutor in this case literally believed that the burn patterns on the floor were in the shape of a pentagram, like some satanic ritual. When you actually look at the burn pattern that they drew and then you look at where the windows are- windows furnish ventilation to a fire, and all they were looking at is what we call ventilation patterns.
NARRATOR: The original arson investigators had testified that there was evidence of a liquid accelerant on the threshold of the porch door.
GERALD HURST: A sample of wood debris from the base of the front porch was analyzed, and the results were positive for a combustible liquid accelerant-kerosene. Well, that's quite understandable because the porch also had a barbecue on it. And of course there would be charcoal lighter fluid there, if there was a can of charcoal lighter fluid on the porch.
NARRATOR: Hurst also addressed Willingham's lack of injuries.
GERALD HURST: The question has been asked, Why were Todd Willingham's feet not burned? And the answer to that question is quite simple. Because if no accelerant was poured on the floor, the floor would have been relatively cool until shortly after flashover occurred in the bedroom. The last part of him that would have gotten any burn would have been his feet.
NARRATOR: And Hurst concluded the original investigators had not eliminated accidental causes.
GERALD HURST: There had to be at least one electrical short in that room. And since it was surface wiring, it would have been relative child's play to simply trace it, get a stepladder and trace it and go over it inch by inch until you locate the fault. That in and of itself is enough to toss a case out for arson.
NARRATOR: Hurst had come to believe Todd Willingham was not guilty.
GERALD HURST: Todd Willingham's case falls into that category where there is not one iota of evidence that the fire was arson. Not one iota.
[www.pbs.org: Hurst's report]
NARRATOR: Hurst completed his report on February 13th, 2004, only four days before the scheduled execution.
WALTER REAVES, Appeals Attorney: You know, all hope was lost and we now have the answer. Getting the news from Dr. Hurst was- I mean, it was- it was definitely a high.
NARRATOR: Willingham's attorney filed a series of emergency last-minute appeals.
WALTER REAVES: I thought that somebody would- would at least say, "Let's stop, and you know, let's at least hold on and let's take a look at it." I mean, we were talking about somebody that was convicted of something that wasn't a crime.
NARRATOR: While Willingham waited for the courts to decide, he received shocking news. Stacy had told reporters that she now believed he had murdered their children.
TINA CHURCH, Private Investigator: She told me that she had changed her mind and felt that Todd was guilty.
NARRATOR: Stacy talked to Todd's private investigator, Tina Church.
TINA CHURCH: And she'd indicated that she had read the entire trial record in one day. And I kept trying to tell her, "Well, we have new evidence." You know, "How would that make you feel to know that your former husband, the father of your children, is going to be executed for something he possibly didn't do?" And she just really had convinced herself by this point he was guilty.
NARRATOR: It all started a few weeks before, at a contentious meeting between Todd and Stacy. For the first time in 12 years, she visited Todd in prison. He asked her not to come to the execution. And he had one last request.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM, Stepmother: He asked her if he could be buried by the children, and she refused. It seems like there was just a lot of hate that came out in that interview.
NARRATOR: Then only one day before the execution, prosecutors filed a stunning document with the courts, an affidavit signed by Stacy's brother claiming that, according to Stacy, Willingham had allegedly confessed during that final meeting at the prison. It outraged Willingham. He denied it, and prepared to die.
SHERRY COOLEY, Friend: He said, "They'll kill me and I'll go to heaven with my kids because I don't want to live this life without them." And he said, "God knows- God knows I didn't do this, and that's what matters."
NARRATOR: On February 17th, the day of the execution, all of Willingham's final appeals failed. Despite the Hurst report, the Texas courts and the United States Supreme Court refused to delay the execution.
WALTER REAVES: You know, the train had left the station and nobody was going to stop it.
NARRATOR: And Texas governor Rick Perry would not use his authority to delay the execution for 30 days.
MICHAEL HALL, Texas Monthly: In Texas, you do not get elected by granting stays of execution to people like Cameron Todd Willingham. You do not show any kind of mercy to criminals. You are hard on criminals. And that gets you elected in this state.
TINA CHURCH: I was given the duty or task to call Mr. and Mrs. Willingham, and it was one of the most really horrifying experiences that I ever had to go through, to tell parents that their son, even though had been proven innocent, was going to die.
[www.pbs.org: Watch this program online]
NARRATOR: At 6:00 o'clock, Cameron Todd Willingham was told that his time was up.
MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press: When he was asked by the warden if he had anything to say, then he went into the statement where- that he said that he had been wrongly convicted and that he was innocent.
TINA CHURCH: At some point, he looked over and into the state's witness room, he noticed Stacy.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: She walked up to the window, and he says, "[expletive deleted] you, [expletive deleted]."
TINA CHURCH: I believe that he felt in his heart that she had lied and her lie had cost- you know, helped cost him his life.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: Not only did he tell his wife that he hoped she would rot in hell, he said that he hoped that she would [expletive deleted] rot in hell. I'd heard a lot of things over covering hundreds of these executions in Texas over the years. I'd never run into that. Then the drugs began to be administered, and within- you know, within a few moments, he had been- he was unconscious, and then a few moments later was pronounced dead.
EUGENIA WILLINGHAM: They told us that we could go to the funeral home when the state turned his body over to the funeral home and touch him while he was still warm. So that's what we did.
SHERRY COOLEY: And after I knew it was over, I went home to my kids, and never been so glad to see them in my life! And I knew Todd was with his. He finally went home to his.
NEWSCASTER: Did the state, which executes more convicts than any other, kill an innocent man?
NEWSCASTER: Did Texas execute an innocent man?
NEWSCASTER: Explosive new charges over the execution of a man who at least half a dozen forensic experts now believe was innocent.
NARRATOR: In death, questions about Willingham's innocence would not go away. By 2008, the controversy had ended up in a small state agency.
JOHN LENTINI, Arson Expert: The Texas Forensic Science Commission was designed to go in and figure out what happened and figure out how to keep it from happening again.
SAM BASSETT, Fmr. Chair, Forensic Science Commission: We decided that we needed to hire an expert in the area of fire science to look at all of the data we could get pulled together, and give us a report.
NARRATOR: The commission hired fire scientist Dr. Craig Beyler to investigate the Willingham case. Beyler agreed with other experts that there was no evidence of arson.
JOHN LENTINI: The Beyler report is point for point a confirmation of the original Hurst report that all 20 of the indicators were wrong.
NARRATOR: To the top fire scientists in the country, the implications were clear.
JOHN LENTINI: The state of Texas executed a man for a crime that they couldn't prove was really a crime, and the evidence says this was an accidental fire. And if it was an accidental fire, it doesn't matter how many posters of Iron Maiden Cameron Todd Willingham had on his wall, or Led Zeppelin, or whether he liked to play darts or drink beer, or whether he smacked his wife around. It only matters that the fire was not really a set fire.
NARRATOR: Texas governor Rick Perry was running for reelection.
SAM BASSETT: I knew from the beginning that it could be controversial simply because we had a person who had been executed and the science used in his case might be questionable, and the implications are obvious. It doesn't take long to connect the dots there.
NARRATOR: Just before the Beyler report was to be presented, the governor fired the commission's chairman.
SAM BASSETT: Around 4:00 or 5:00 PM, I received a call from Doris Scott of the governor's office. She said, "I just wanted to let you know that the governor thanks you for your service on the commission." And I said, "OK, well, thank you for calling."
Gov. RICK PERRY (R), Texas: This is a guy on his- on- in the death chamber, his last breath, he spews an obscenity-laced triad [sic] against his wife. That's the person who we're talking about here. And getting all tied up in the process here is, frankly, a deflection of what people across this state and this country need to be looking at. This was a bad man.
NARRATOR: In all, Perry fired three members of the commission, then installed a political ally, prosecutor John Bradley, as the new chairman.
MICHAEL HALL, Texas Monthly: It wasn't until Rick Perry stepped in and replaced three members of the commission, and within days the story had grown nationwide, that it got to be a big story.
NARRATOR: The new commission's investigation continues. Willingham's case is now at the heart of the national debate about the death penalty.
PROTESTER: Thank you for making this Todd's day!
SAM BASSETT: Well, I think the implications for capital punishment are there. But the implications for non-capital cases are there, too. And that is, if we make a mistake, are we going to learn from it? Or are we going to try to sweep it under the rug and act like nothing happened?
GERALD HURST: I can guarantee you we've got at least a couple of hundred people in prison in this state alone for accidental fires, and we need to get them out.
NARRATOR: But in Corsicana, they made up their minds a long time ago.
VICKY PRATER: I believe that Todd Willingham got exactly what he deserved the day they put him to death. And I don't believe that he didn't get a fair trial in this town. And I don't- it's really a shame we couldn't put him to death three times, since he took three lives.
NARRATOR: And the original arson investigators still insist Willingham set the fire.
DOUGLAS FOGG, Assistant Fire Chief: I don't care how many degrees you may have, how many books you may have written, this was a set fire. We had a jury of 12 people that convicted a man who was later executed. Was Mr. Willingham innocent? In my opinion, he was guilty as the day he was born.
DEATH BY FIRE
PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY
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Dr. Grigson photos by Jonathan Becker/Vanity Fair
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