Interview Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert

She's a playwright from Houston, Texas, who first began questioning Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction while corresponding with him between 1999 and 2004. You can read a selection of his letters to her here. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 14, 2010.

Can you start from the very beginning with your involvement with Todd? …

Someone asked me if I would like to write a man on death row, be a pen pal, and I was like, sure. 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. And he wrote me a letter, and in this letter, he thanked me for writing him and [said that] if I would like to visit, he would put me on his visitor list. ... I was just really struck by the letter from Todd. It was very polite; it was very kind.

“If he was guilty of anything, it was self-preservation. He ran out of the house ... then thought about the children.”

[The first time I visited him,] I walked in expecting to see a black man, the whole stereotype. ... And here was this handsome young white man who was very polite and very genial, ... who told me his story and thanked me, very appreciative about the visit. ...

So I began corresponding and visiting with him, ... and the more I learned, the more I became intrigued and began to think that maybe there was something to his -- he said that he was innocent, and I thought I would try and help him. ...

[Let's go to the day you meet Todd. Walk me through that day.]

We go into this room, and there were these men behind these Plexiglas screens and people sitting down and talking on phones. This was all very new to me. ... He was just very polite and very charming, ... like, "How are you?," a lot of concern for me as a person. I came back from that first visit with just an awareness of, how does someone endure that sort of a situation, guilty or not? Just having walked into a prison environment, sat there for two hours, the effect that it had on me. ... I couldn't imagine the effect it would have on a person 24 hours a day. So then I became more intrigued, and we began a correspondence, and I began visiting.

[I'm just trying to envision what it was like to be interacting with Todd. What did he tell you?]

... He did tell me the story of what happened, and I remember just hearing him tell the story, and it was just very tragic, and being very moved that this person could have lost his three children and his wife and his life and be innocent. ...

The story he told me was this: He woke up to a fire. He ran out of the house and couldn't run back in to save his children, and that was enough to get me interested. ... There's a writer in me that's like, ... this is a great story. ... I have a good friend, who was my neighbor at the time, and I told her about it. ... She had been a reporter, and she was like, "Let's go investigate it." ...

[Can you talk to me a little bit about the two sides of Todd that you started uncovering?]

... I went up to Austin first and got the records of the trial. I'm in copying these records. I'm reading these reports. And as soon as we read the records, then red flags started appearing.

A red flag to me was Johnny Webb. The idea that a prisoner would confess to a complete stranger that he had committed a crime -- I just didn't buy that. ... And the other thing was they had used a man that they called Dr. Death [James P. Grigson]. He's hired to come in and to make sure they get the death penalty by assuring the jury that this person just has to be removed from society.

[My friend and I] decided, we'll go to Corsicana, and we'll see what the people in Corsicana say. ... We just started meeting people and talking to them, and the more I heard the stories, the more red flags kept popping up. There was this disconnect between this person that I'm reading in the court records, the prosecutor's statements, and this person that I'm learning about.

... In the court records, the prosecution started treating him in a way that I thought, what they're accusing him of and what I see -- they're not matching. For example, they would always say, "Well, his prior criminal record was shoplifting." He had stolen a camera or something, or, when he was underage, a bicycle.

Those didn't seem to be heinous crimes, aggravated assault or something like that. So he was a bad boy. Here's an example: I interviewed his parents, and his father told me that at one point he had been put in a reformatory sort of situation, and he got in trouble there, because what he did was he figured out how to hook up the cable for the kids who were being held there. So that was the sort of crime he was capable of doing.

[Although he did beat ... Stacy.]

Yeah, he was definitely very abusive to her. He never denied it. He told me that the first time; he said, "I was a horrible husband, but I love my children." ... His personal relationship with Stacy was horrible. I think they met when she was still in high school, and he had this -- in fact, he would talk about this -- this macho idea of what a man was. ...

[I'm envisioning that in Corsicana, more people than not would be anti-Todd in that community.]

When I went there, everybody remembered it. It was a very tragic thing that happened at Christmastime. ... But they talked about how in the beginning, how everyone was very compassionate toward [him] and Stacy, ... and then the community mind shifted. ...

We met with people who were personally part of it: [the Willinghams' neighbors] the Barbees; Stacy's grandmother, who raised her; Stacy; [Willingham's lawyer,] David Martin; the prosecution -- and of course they were all on the same book -- Todd did this, ... he was a horrible person -- except for Stacy. ...

There was really only one person who -- and I remember to this day -- he was a fireman, and he said, "You'll never know what you'll do when you're in a fire." Everyone else was like: "I don't care; I would have saved my children; I could have done it. Even if I was asleep I would have woken up and saved my children." But the fireman said, "You never know what's going to happen unless you're in there."

Describe him from the perspective of people who thought he killed his children.

I can see how the authorities could not like Todd, because he's not a person who is going to give you respect if you don't deserve it just because you say something. ...

Todd's mother had several children by different fathers, and Todd had been abandoned in California. ... He's a good-looking man. He was a witty man, you know? Funny, caring. He wasn't arrogant, but he was kind of set in his ways. If he thought something, it was one way. You could show him an alternative, but he was still going to stick by his particular view. But I could see how to women he could be a very charming, good-looking guy, especially when he was younger.

He was in his 30s when I met him. But to me, I would kind of imagine [how] when I was teaching middle school, you would always have that kid who was wily and smart in the back of the room, that he would be doing something wrong and get away with it. If somebody set off the alarm system, it would have probably been him, ... more in a mischievous rather than in a malevolent [way]. He enjoyed getting away with things. ...

If Todd was guilty of anything, it was just his self-preservation. He got up and ran out of the house and then thought about the children after the fact. ...

When I read the article [in The New Yorker] by David Grann, I was very struck by people responding to the article, of people thinking I was such a hero and what a wonderful person I was, and I didn't feel that at all. I felt like I had very much, like Todd, taken a path of self-preservation.

When it seemed like I was going to really have to be there at Todd's execution, I don't think I could have done it. I think I began to distance myself. I didn't visit as often; I didn't write as often. This was kind of after my conversation with [fire science expert] Gerald Hurst. And the [car] accident made sure that I didn't have to go up there. But I think he and I both shared that. When it comes down to it, we need to do what we need to do, which is to save ourselves. And I found that kind of ironic that this article made me out to be this wonderful heroine, when I felt like in fact I had let Todd down. ...

[What happened as your investigation continued?]

More and more questions kept piling up. It just wasn't making sense to me. ... [The] Johnny Webb incident came up, and it was like, ... they had the arson investigators' report saying it was an arson. They don't know who started the fire, but conveniently, the man who's in jail for drugs [and is sharing a cell with Willingham] says that Todd told him he was the one who did it. And that didn't make [any] sense to me.

[When] I interviewed him, he was a very, very nervous young man. Had I been sitting on the jury, I couldn't have bought his testimony. But I got a sense of this being a very small Texas town, where politics were very important, and at the time [John] Jackson was running for judge, and he was the prosecution, so there were lots of reasons to find someone and get them convicted. And the whole town seemed to be traumatized by this Christmas fire.

[Tell me about your interview with Willingham's defense attorney, David Martin. ...]

David Martin, he came over to the bed-and-breakfast where we were staying for the interview, and he talked about the trial. ... He wasn't talking about how Todd was an innocent man that got railroaded; it was like, "Todd got convicted, and he deserved it." So that kind of struck me. ...

[Didn't it give you any pause that his own defense attorney didn't believe him?]

No, because that just fit in with Todd's saying he didn't have a very good defense. ...

The one thing that did strike me was ... [Martin] said, if Todd were ever able to get out of prison, he'd be a dangerous person. And that kind of took me aback, and I thought, does he think I'm in love with him, or does he really think Todd is a sociopath that could really wreak havoc in the community if he got out? ... I never thought that Todd was a dangerous person. … So when his defense attorney said that, then I was like, "Whoa, you're the defense attorney, and this is how you feel about your client? Am I totally off base here? What's going on?" So that kind of worried me. ...

You didn't buy it?

I just wasn't impressed with David Martin. He didn't convince me that Todd was guilty either. There wasn't nothing that he was saying that was not what I was reading in the court transcript, and in fact, I didn't really get anything more from his interview than I did from having read the material. ...

They thought the facts were Todd had done this; Johnny Webb said he had done it, and they got the right person. And the thing to me that was the most tragic is that the case hung on it being an arson; that this fire investigator ... determined that it was an arson, and so everything shifted at that point. The whole community shifted from compassion to hostility. And it all hinged on this man's [Manuel Vasquez] report, which later ... we discovered that it was a faulty investigation. ...

But everyone knew it was a fire that was intentionally set; that was a given. ... So they just had to find out who it was that started the fire. ... They never established a motive. So then their motive shifted to Todd just being an evil person. And what they looked at were posters on the wall, which were the typical posters that young men listen to, the heavy metal; that he smoked pot; that he had this horrible past of crime, which turned out to be shoplifting and a bicycle. So nothing was making sense to me. ...

Tell me about your meeting with the Barbees, Todd's neighbors. Tell me what they told you.

… They were very adamant that Todd was not trying to save the children, that he was faking that he was upset. … In reading the records, though, if I remember correctly, it was the little girl [Buffie, called "Barbara" in Willingham's police interview] that Todd sent for help, because Todd didn't have a phone. And then she went and got the mother, and the mother [Diane] came. ...

One of the things -- and again, here is another element that was disturbing to me -- they were big about was, well, he tried to move his car out of the way; what was that about? He tried to save his car. I asked Todd about that, and he said, "In my mind, it was I get the car away from the fire," and I attributed that to any rational behavior that anyone could have in a fire. ... The house is burning down; your kids are inside; you're running around -- what do you do? But that was one of the things that when I read that, like: "Oh, why did you try and save your car? What was that about? Why were you moving the car?" But every question I had, Todd had an answer for. … I know Todd loved cars. His father was a mechanic, and Todd was a mechanic. I really don't know what that was about.

Can you describe your meeting with Stacy?

Stacy came in, and I felt that she was very genuine, and I think this was the first time she had really talked to anybody outside [of the official investigation]. ... But to me [she] was just like, "Oh, sure, I'll meet you; I'll tell you this is the truth." ... I told her I was a writer; I'm from Houston. I interviewed her; I taped her. And she seemed kind of reserved, nervous, just a person who had a lot of tragedy in her life.

I had heard from Todd that her mother had been murdered, and she had been there. So it seemed like her life had been filled with tragedy, ... and she seemed genuinely to feel Todd had not done this. ... She really convinced me that she felt that an injustice had been done. … She didn't feel like he was capable of doing that.

So you believe Stacy told the truth?

Yes, I really do.

Do you remember how she said it?

… She cried, and I just remember her saying, "Todd is not capable of doing that," just acknowledging that he loved his children. I sensed this very pained individual. ... After the conviction, and after Todd was on death row, Stacy decided to get a divorce. She didn't visit him on death row.

[What was the moment where you doubted Todd the most?]

Probably when I was up there, … and it wasn't so much Todd, but just the enormity of this horrible event, was in looking at the pictures of the children. They had the actual photos that we saw and were looking through them. But just the enormity of: Oh, my God, this fire ended in the result of these innocent children being burned to death. One time when Todd said that he got up, he told Amber to go outside, and he went into the children's room, I couldn't imagine. I was like, "Why didn't you just grab Amber?" Questions like that. But supposedly it was smoke-filled; he couldn't see. ...

There were moments I wished for clarity of him looking more clearly innocent. There were lots of foggy areas that bothered me. But there weren't enough clearly defining moments of guilt for me that I could say, "Oh, I think you did this."

In anyone's life there are inconsistencies, and Todd's certainly had plenty of those: abusive husband but loved the children; says he loves his wife but having affairs. ... Now, I will say I think they executed an innocent man. I feel that they did, that it was just a miscarriage. ...

[Some have said that Todd was a charming manipulator. You must have been on your guard.]

No, honestly I didn't feel like he was manipulating me. I had access to his family; I had access to all of his friends; I had access to anybody who could have told me another version. It wasn't like he would say, "Now, they're going to tell you this, but it's not true." He never said anything like that. He was like, "Go talk to my brother," or, "Go talk to my parents," or, "Go talk to my friends," or, "This person will tell you that." …

I feel like I was very much appreciated for what I was doing. He was very grateful. I felt that I was very needed by him, that he admitted that he had been extremely depressed, and then when my name came up and we became friends, he felt like he had a new opportunity for life, a possibility. …

What do you say to people who say: Liz, you're a liberal; you went searching just as hard as the other side went searching for the evidence they wanted to find, which was to make Todd a guilty man. You went in for the evidence; you met him; you liked him; you believed his story; and you may not have found the story you wanted to find?

I wasn't really looking for a story, so to speak. ... I was looking for something new and different. I didn't know what the story would be. And Todd was not a political cause for me. It was more of a personal thing. Once I got to know him as a friend, I felt that injustice was being done, and I wanted to help him out then. ...

Todd was more of -- we were kind of both rule breakers. ... So there's more of a personal connection in my sense of wanting to help him out. It seemed to be he didn't have the resources. ... I was no Joan of Arc, making him my cause. ...

Can you tell me how he described his children and his relationship with them to you?

... He loved his family; that was always consistent. ... He was very enamored of Amber and would often talk about how she would say things to him, the things that she would do. I don't think they had really bonded yet with the twins -- they were still infants -- but Amber was very, very, very much a part of his life. He was very close to her, and he would describe her and talk about her. When it was her birthday, he would be depressed. ...

Let's go to the day of your car accident.

I was [visiting] … New York to see my new grandson. ... On my way back, I was just doing 35 mph, and the light's green, and I'm going through the intersection, and all of a sudden there's this car coming right at me. It happened so quickly that I tried to put my foot on the brake, but I didn't even get there, and we just impacted. And 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. ... I remember the doctor coming to me and saying, "Well, it's confirmed: Your neck is broken, and you may be like this for the rest of your life." ...

I've read, too, that under trauma, that you have this ability to kind of disconnect from the experience. And I think that's the reason I didn't react when I heard about Todd, and I read the letter and everything. It's like, OK, and yet another thing: I'm paralyzed; Todd's being executed. ...

You did promise Todd that you would attend his execution. ...

I promised Todd that I would attend the execution. ... It was impossible for me to go. I was incapable of that sort of travel. Sitting in a chair that long, driving to Huntsville just wouldn't have happened. ... I'm sure I would have been there. It's something I know. I would not have denied him that, but the accident kept me from being there. At some level, the universe was giving me the excuse for not being there. ... The universe was like, "Oh, you don't have to watch this." ... It would have been a horrible thing, but I'm sure I would have gone.

The day of Todd's execution, were you told at all?

I think I was. Somebody brought the article from the [Houston] Chronicle, and they have the picture of the person, because that's kind of what was going on all the time: Somebody else would be executed; their picture would be in the paper. It was just this kind of ongoing death mill of executions. And so someone brought me the article about it, and I remember reading it and reading his last words and just going, "Huh?," but not really registering it. There was just too much going on in my life, like, how was I going to live? What was I going to do? Where was I going to go? There were too many other personal things going on at the time. ...

What did his story mean to you?

I think how badly things can go wrong in our judicial system. ... All it took was one person saying that this was a deliberately set fire, and then a whole chain of information became malevolent. ... Criminal past -- that worked all in their favor to create this "monster" -- and they even used the word "monster." It's like, let's ensure that the public thinks he's an evil individual. ...

I was just really appalled, and I really kept quiet until I saw the governor [Rick Perry] get on and repeat the same words that the prosecution had used in the penalty phase: that he was a monster. And that got me to get on to the computer and connect with some of the media and say: ... "I have his letters. He wasn't a monster. He was a caring individual." Let them see another side. …

I think the big thing, his big secret he was carrying was the guilt. … In his mind, he couldn't acknowledge that he didn't try to save his children, so he concocted the story that he tried to go in and find the babies and couldn't. ... He couldn't acknowledge: "I got up, I ran out of the house, I didn't save my children." … I think what he needed the public to believe was that he wouldn't have been a person who just ran out and saved himself. That was too hard to bear. ...

In your opinion, what happened? What is the truth here from all the craziness and information you gathered?

What I think happened was, Todd was asleep in bed, and Stacy gets up and decides to go to the store to get the Christmas gifts and says, "I'm leaving the kids," and goes out the door. The kids start crying. He wakes up, gets them out of their crib, the twins, gives them a bottle on the floor. Amber's playing around, and he goes back to sleep. ... And then, when he wakes up to this smoke-filled house and in a state of not being awake, he just runs out of the house. And then he realizes his first responsibility should have been to the kids, but he can't get back in the house at that point. ...

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posted october 19, 2010

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