The case against Willingham

Most of the pushback against the criticism of the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation and conviction has so far been of the form of “He was a bad guy!” and “We did too use science to prove arson!”, neither of which has been the least bit convincing. The DMN has a story that does a much better job of creating doubt about any claims of innocence. Basically, Willingham made a lot of inconsistent statements over time, the Beyler report never concluded that the fire was not arson, just that arson could not be proven, and some media reports of one juror’s doubts about her guilty vote were overblown. It does not change the nature of the problem with his case, which is that the forensic techniques used to convict Willingham were bunk, and that many other people have been convicted on similar “evidence”, but it was still a bit bracing to read. I know I for one had held some incorrect beliefs about the case based on previous reporting, and it was good to get set straight on a few points.

But again, this doesn’t change the fundamentals of the case, which still all boil down to this:

Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist from Austin, began researching the fire evidence after being recruited in January 2004 by Patricia Ann Cox, a Willingham cousin. Hurst finished his report four days before the scheduled execution on Feb. 17.

His affidavit, filed in the trial court, said “most of the conclusions” reached by fire marshal Vasquez “would be considered invalid in light of current knowledge” in the fire investigation field. It said the finding of multiple origins – a persuasive sign of arson – “was inappropriate even in the context of the state of the art in 1991.”

Hurst did not express an opinion about what caused the fire in the affidavit. However, in a letter sent to Perry on Feb. 13, 2004, requesting a 30-day reprieve for his client, Willingham’s attorney stated “Dr. Hurst’s opinion is that the fire was not intentionally set.”


Beyler delivered his report in August. In it, he said “a finding of arson could not be sustained” based upon current standards of fire investigation or those in place in 1992. He did not say what caused the fire, as Corsicana Fire Chief Donald McMullan pointed out in a response.

In an interview Friday, Beyler said that he had no theory about what actually happened and that the cause of the fire is undetermined.

His report did not try to explain Willingham’s inconsistencies and adopted at least one of his claims as fact: that Amber was in her own bed right before the fire. He said he didn’t realize until The News told him that her body was found with the sheet pulled up near her shoulders, raising the question whether she was tucked in her parents’ bed all along.

Ultimately, he said, the conclusions he reached didn’t depend on Willingham’s statements. Beyler said he focused on the science.

“I do recognize that he said many different things to many different people,” Beyler said of Willingham.

At the end of the day, if the investigation of the Willingham fire had been done correctly, there likely never would have been charges filed. The evidence does not support a conclusion of arson. You can’t be certain what a DA might do, but if the one in this case had proceeded he might well have lost. We almost certainly would not be where we are right now had the fire marshal at the time done the right thing. That’s what it’s all about.

By the way, Cameron Willingham isn’t the only one who has given conflicting statements about what did or did not happen. So has his ex-wife Stacy, who is now claiming that he did in fact confess to her, despite saying the opposite in years past.

In a brief interview at her home in 2004, Kuykendall told the Tribune Willingham never made [a confession]. She confirmed that this year to a reporter from the New Yorker magazine.

Her statement that he confessed — and that he said he set the fire because she threatened to divorce him — also conflicts with other accounts that she has provided.

Eight days after the fire, in an interview with fire investigators and police, Kuykendall said that she and Willingham had not argued for at least two weeks and she made no mention of a threat the night before the fire to divorce him.

On that night, she told authorities, the couple went to a Kmart and picked up family photographs that she intended to give as Christmas presents.

She failed to mention a threat of divorce in a second interview as well, and under oath at the punishment phase of Willingham’s trial said he never would have hurt their three girls.

I’m no more inclined to believe what Stacy Kuykendall says now than I am to believe her brothers. The science is the key, as this Star Telegram article admirably reports (hat tip: The Contrarian). Everything else is a distraction.

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