Frequently Asked Questions


Why focus on the Cameron Todd Willingham case?

+  Since 1976, when the Supreme Court lifted a ban on execution, Willingham is the most prominent case of a person who was convicted and executed for a crime he may not have committed. According to arson experts, there was nothing in the evidence presented at his 1992 trial that suggests it was an arson fire that killed his three children.

+  The case addresses issues at the heart of the national debate on capital punishment -- the use of science in the courtroom, the integrity of our criminal justice system and the justice -- or injustice -- of the death penalty. In a much cited 2006 opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the dissent in a case had not cited "a single case -- not one -- in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit." Could the Willingham case quash that argument?

+  For many, the Willingham execution is also significant because it happened in the state of Texas, notorious for having the highest rate of executions in the U.S. -- more than 400 since the national ban was lifted in 1976. In one seven-day period in February 2004, Willingham was one of three men executed in Texas.

  • Willingham's case gained prominence within a year of his execution when The Chicago Tribune published a major article on the arson evidence. A few years later, The New Yorker published its story and the The Innocence Project also launched its initiative seeking a review of the conviction.

Any new developments in the case?

+  The Texas Forensic Science Commission met in September 2010 and rejected the draft report [PDF] of Gov. Rick Perry's appointed chairman, John Bradley. That report would have essentially ended the commission's work on the Willingham case, for it concluded that the fire investigators in the case "did not commit professional negligence or misconduct," and acted appropriately given the institutional knowledge of arson science in 1991.

At the September meeting, the TFSC committed to expanding its investigation beyond the Willingham case to see whether the state of Texas should go back and review other arson convictions.

The TFSC met again in October, the major point of contention being remarks made by chair John Bradley that Willingham was "a guilty monster."

+  In September 2010, the Innocence Project, on behalf of Willingham's family, petitioned Judge Charlie Baird for a court of inquiry to determine if Todd was wrongfully convicted and executed. (In 2009 Baird presided over the posthumous exoneration of a man wrongly convicted of rape, who later died in prison, and Gov. Rick Perry later pardoned the man.) The Navarro County district attorney asked Judge Baird to recuse himself from the Willingham case, but Baird refused and carried on with the inquiry on Oct. 14, 2010. Toward the end of the hearing, the Texas Third Court of Appeals ordered Baird to halt the proceedings and asked the Willingham family's legal team to further explain why the court of inquiry should continue. In December 2010, the court ruled that Baird "abused his discretion when he did not recuse himself" from the proceedings. Willingham's family has asked the Third Court to reconsider the ruling.

How common are questionable arson conviction cases like Willingham's?

While the total number of wrongful arson convictions is unknown, there are two Texas cases which are similar to Willingham's, and the two people convicted were freed from prison in part based on the findings of arson expert, Gerald Hurst.

+  Ernest Ray Willis was on death row with Willingham for killing two women in a house fire in Iraan, Texas. He was exonerated in 2004 based on fire evidence [PDF] strikingly similar to that turned up in the Willingham case. Willis walked out of death row a free man eight months after Willingham was executed for the same "crime."

+  Sonia Cacy of Fort Stockton was convicted in 1991 of setting her uncle on fire in his bed and sentenced to 99 years in prison. After the arson evidence was disputed, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole released her after serving six years. She is currently free on parole; the Innocence Project recently filed her case with the Texas Forensic Science Commission in order to officially clear her name -- technically, her murder conviction is still on her record.

These cases are not limited to Texas; click here for in-depth profiles of four men whose cases are under review.

CNN points to stats from the National Fire Protection Association, a fire prevention non-profit: There were more than 200,000 arson cases in 1980; by 2007, the number was about 55,000. Numbers from Massachusetts seem to match: A September 2010 Boston Globe article states that "from 1984 to 2001, the number of structure fires ruled arson fell more than 70 percent, while total structure fires remained largely stable." There is no clear reason why this is the case: Are fewer people setting fires, or has arson investigation changed dramatically, become more rigorous? And if it's the latter, are there people in prison -- or people who have been executed -- who were convicted using methods that are now considered outdated?


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posted october 19, 2010; updated january 3, 2011

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