Said White: “I don’t turn killers loose. If Willis was guilty, I’d be retrying him right now. And I’d use Hurst as my witness. He’s a brilliant scientist. If he says it was an arson fire, then it was. If he says it wasn’t, then it wasn’t.” Hurst and Ryland said the two fires–the one that sent Willis to Death Row and the one that sent Cameron Willingham to his execution–were nearly identical.
Of the 944 men and women executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in the mid-1970s, only one– Cameron Willingham–has been put to death for a crime in which fire was the murder weapon.
Cameron went to trial in August 1992, eight months after the fire. Batchelor and first assistant John Jackson offered a deal–a life term in exchange for a guilty plea. But he turned it down, insisting he was innocent.
The prosecution’s case relied on two fire investigators, assistant Corsicana fire chief Doug Fogg and deputy state fire marshal Manuel Vasquez, who testified that the fire was arson.
Fogg, in an interview at his home stood by his investigation. “Fire talks to you. The structure talks to you,” he said. “You call that years of experience. You don’t just pick that knowledge up overnight.” He said he first eliminated accidental causes, including electrical malfunctions– though his report noted possible shorts in two places in the house.
Vasquez testified; “The fire tells a story, I am just the interpreter. I am looking at the fire, and I am interpreting the fire. That is what I know. That is what I do best. And the fire does not lie. It tells me the truth.” Vasquez testified that of the 1,200 to 1,500 fires he had investigated, nearly all had been arson, and he had never been wrong.
All four subsequent consultants however said Vasquez made serious errors in his testimony. For example, when he said an accelerant must have been used to set the fire because wood could not burn hot enough to melt an aluminium threshold, he was wrong. It can. The experts said that finding evidence of the charcoal lighter fluid was not as ominous as Fogg and Vasquez suggested. They noted that the fire fighters found melted remains of a plastic container of lighter fluid on the front porch, and that it was possible fire fighters’ hoses propelled the fluid under the threshold as they extinguished the fire.
The experts who reviewed the case didn’t put any stock in the claims that Cameron ‘s behaviour was damning. They say experience shows that there is no way to predict how people will react in a fire or to the grief of losing loved ones.
On the day of Cameron’s execution, his father and step-mother, Gene and Eugenia Willingham, spent four hours with him, then said their goodbyes. “He didn’t want us worrying over him,” his father said. “He said he’d be OK.”
Though their son had earlier found hope in Hurst’s report, he was realistic. “He knew it was too late,” Eugenia Willingham said. “He said, `I’m going.'”
That night, the Willingham’s drove back home to Ardmore, Okla. Gene Willingham said he did not want to be in Texas anymore. “Texas says they don’t kill innocent people,” he said. “But they sure killed an innocent person with him.”
Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?
29 April 2019
Trial by fire
7 September 2009