October 19, 2010
Did Texas execute an innocent man?
Several controversial death penalty cases are currently under examination in Texas and in other states, but it's the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham -- convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children -- that's now at the center of the national debate.
In Death by Fire, FRONTLINE gains unique access to those closest to the Willingham case -- meticulously examining the evidence used to convict Willingham, offering an in-depth portrait of those most impacted by the case, and exploring the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man.
"The state of Texas executed a man for a crime that they couldn't prove was really a crime," nationally renowned fire scientist John Lentini tells FRONTLINE.
The re-examination of the case turns on a critical finding that came only weeks before Willingham's scheduled execution: The investigators who determined that Willingham had set the fire that killed his three daughters had relied on an outdated understanding of arson evidence. "Todd Willingham's case falls into that category where there is not one iota of evidence that the fire was arson," forensic scientist Gerald Hurst tells FRONTLINE of the results of his review of the evidence. "Fundamentally, this was a classic accidental fire."
But even with a central pillar of the state's case against Willingham in doubt, Texas Gov. Rick Perry refused to delay Willingham's execution. Last year a report [PDF] commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission backed up the findings of Dr. Hurst, finding that the arson evidence against Willingham did not have "any basis in modern fire science." Perry publicly defended his handling of the case and quickly replaced the commission's chairman, Sam Bassett.
"If we make a mistake, are we going to learn from it?" Bassett asks FRONTLINE. "Or are we going to try to sweep it under the rug and act like nothing happened?"
Experts tell FRONTLINE there could be hundreds of innocent people in prison for arson cases where the evidence was misinterpreted by investigators. But not everyone is convinced that Willingham was innocent. Despite the evidence the fire was not an arson, in the town of Corsicana, Texas, where the deaths occurred, many say Willingham was guilty. Even Willingham's own defense attorney, David Martin, still insists his client started the deadly fire. "Of course I thought he was guilty," Martin says. "The real fact of the matter is that Willingham was guilty. He wasn't innocent. He really set that fire and killed those kids."
Through interviews with Willingham's friends and family, FRONTLINE tells the story of a troubled young man with a history of domestic violence who quickly became the prime suspect in his children's deaths. The discovery by fire investigators of more than 20 indicators of arson at the scene of the fire pointed directly to Willingham's guilt.
At the trial, jurors heard evidence that Willingham had confessed to a fellow inmate; that he was a sociopath; and that he had posted satanic images on the walls of his house. "He was an individual with essentially no redeeming value," former prosecutor John Jackson tells FRONTLINE. "This was his crowning achievement as a psychopath: the murder of his three children."
Death by Fire tells the story a writer named Elizabeth Gilbert who first began to question Willingham's conviction and to draw attention to the possible miscarriage of justice after corresponding with Willingham as part of a prison pen pal program. As Gilbert dug into Willingham's case, she found problems with the alleged jailhouse confession and the evidence that Willingham was a sociopath or Satanist. In fact, the satanic images prosecutors had introduced at trial were posters for the rock bands Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin. "They never established a motive," Gilbert tells FRONTLINE. "So then their motive shifted to Todd just being an evil person."