In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the arson deaths of his three young children. The initial fire investigation found more than 20 indicators of arson, pointing to Willingham’s guilt. But as students will discover in this video clip, when a modern fire scientist re-examined the evidence used to convict Willingham, no sign of arson was found. Did Texas execute an innocent man?
For classrooms studying Social Studies, Civics and Law, this FRONTLINE teacher’s guide includes a set of themes and discussion questions to help students analyze and understand key current events. Watch the video chapter and start a discussion that examines the credibility of evidence used to convict Willingham. Go further into this topic with the Death by Fire lesson plan that asks students to compare conflicting interpretations of evidence from the crime scene and to evaluate whether or not the state proved that Willingham was guilty.
In the years since Willingham’s conviction in 1992, there has been a dramatic change in the science of arson investigation.
To better learn how to detect arson, scientists now set their own fires and study how they burn.
After re-examining the evidence used to convict Willingham, Gerald Hurst, a modern arson scientist, determined that there was no sign of arson and that Willingham had been wrongly convicted.
Despite Hurst’s report and a series of emergency appeals filed by Willingham’s attorney, the execution went forward as scheduled. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004.
How would setting fires and studying how they burn help scientists who conduct fire investigations?
How valid do you think Hurst’s criticisms are for the arson evidence from the initial fire investigation? Explain.
Do you believe that the state proved its case that Willingham was guilty of murdering his three children by arson?
Based on Hurst’s analysis of the arson evidence used to convict Willingham, do you believe that Willingham’s execution should have been delayed and his case reopened? Why or why not?
If Willingham was actually executed for a crime he didn’t commit, how should that affect other death penalty cases in the United States?
Death by Fire Lesson Plan: “Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?”
Web-exclusive Resources: Documents and Artifacts From the Willingham Case
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for more than 30 years. He has written numerous lessons for NewsHour Extra. He is also a freelance curriculum writer and education consultant for various PBS programs, including FRONTLINE, the PBS NewsHour's the.News, NewsHour Extra, WNET and WETA specials, and the Ken Burns series The War and The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea.
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