Monday, April 09, 2007
Was an innocent man executed in Texas?
Cameron Todd Willingham was just 23 when he was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three little girls - 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins, Kameron and Karmon.

Willingham told police he tried to save his girls, who all died in the 1991 fire at the family's Corsicana, Texas home, but fire investigators say clues at the scene told them he'd actually set the fire. He was convicted of arson homicide.

But today, some leading fire investigators around the country say the old method of determining whether or not a fire was arson is outdated and unreliable. Pour patterns on the floor are no longer considered proof an accelerant was used, they say. There is a newly understood phenomenon called "flashover" that can cause such patterns without an accelerant ever being introduced.

These investigators say for years arson determinations have been based more on folklore, than fact. Hunches handed down for generations.

So is it possible fire investigators in the Willingham case, who believe they found pour patterns on the floor and three points of origin for the fire, got it wrong in the Willingham case? That would mean on February 17, 2004, the state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.

Fire investigator and forensic scientist John Lentini studied the Willingham case and determined it was not arson that killed those little girls. He calls the original investigation B.S. - Bad Science.

Lentini told me, ''There's maybe 75,000 suspicious fires a year. That's 75,000 chances to get it wrong.'' We met Lentini at a Maryland lab so he could show us why he believes the relatively new arson science debunks the myths he says have been handed down for years. I was amazed at what I saw. I don't know if you've ever seen the show "Myth Busters" on the Discovery Channel, but I felt like I was in the middle of a "Myth Busters" episode.

One so-called "indicator" for those who originally investigated the Willingham case is something called "crazed glass." For years, crazed glass -- which has webbing or tiny cracks inside it -- was believed to be a sure sign of a very hot fire, one that likely involved an accelerant. But Lentini and the others showed us how "crazed glass" is actually caused by rapid cooling, not rapid heating. We sprayed a piece of hot glass with water, the same way a fireman would spray a window with his hose, and that is when the glass began to crack inside. It didn't crack at all when we heated it up.

The man who prosecuted Willingham calls the new findings "silly" and says he has no doubt Willingham was guilty, based on fire evidence and Willingham's history of drinking and domestic abuse. The original fire investigators also stand by their findings. The Texas Governor's office would not comment for this report.

These new forensics are now used as the gold standard of arson investigation around the world. It may have come too late in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (the governor of Texas reviewed the new findings just 15 minutes before Willingham's execution and chose to go ahead with it) but they could save hundreds of others behind bars for arson who claim they're innocent. Problem is, the International Association of Arson Investigators, doesn't see a need to reopen or revisit all of the arson convictions on the books.

If that was your loved one behind bars, wouldn't you want the new ways of looking at evidence heard?
Posted By Randi Kaye, CNN Correspondent: 2:53 PM ET
  36 Comments
I'm no firefighter, but it just seems like common sense. I remember one time when I was little and either my mom or I -- I can't remember who--put a hot glass baking dish in the sink and it cracked. I remembered that lesson and, years later as an adult, tried to stop a friend from doing it (it was too late). Isn't this the same sort of problem?

All of the new evidence techniques (DNA, too)do make me wonder how many people are sitting in prison-- or have been put to death-- because of things like this. I am against the death penalty (although some of the truly evil criminals do make me sometimes second-quess my stance on that) because of the chance for mistakes and because I don't think we have the right to take lives.

More cases where there is strong evidence that comes out years later and still the prosecutors refuse to reopen the cases need to be brought to light (and thank you for bringing this one). How awful that this man may have lost his little girls and then have the tragedy compounded thusly.

Kind of makes you wonder, too, what the future will show about our evidence techniques.

And what about the phenomena that juries now-- because of all of the CSI/detective shows-- rely so much on evidence and expect there to be some even when there may not be any? How has this affected rape trials where so much depends on the witness to show intent (and, yes, I do believe that complainants should be believes unless there is a reason not to believe them)?
Posted By Anonymous Norah, West Chester, PA : 3:55 PM ET
Randi:
Yes, I would want to be heard if forensic evidence or "new tests" would clear me or a loved one behind bars!

I had no idea forelore was still behind arson investigations. That is medieval! Yes, experience passed along generations is important, but it cannot be the "end of the discussion" when it comes to someone's life or death.

With the extraordinary technology available for crime investigators, why not re-open old cases? DNA has released innocent people from prison.

Science needs to be an on-going process always questioning the status quo.

Looking forward to the segment.
Posted By Anonymous Liz, Milwaukee, Wisconsin : 3:57 PM ET
Absolutely!! If there is a minute chance an innocent person it sitting in prison, the authorities need to shelve their egos and re-investigate! IMMEDIATELY!
Posted By Anonymous Ramona Boyd, Goodland, KS : 4:02 PM ET
This is your classic death penalty debate. It is a very sad thing when someone is put to death, only to find out later that he or she isn't guilty or possibly isn't guilty. It is a tragedy that the father's death (in this blog) was based off of fire folklore and superstition passed down through the ages, but let the truth be known, that innocent people are killed in America's death row system all the time. There is plenty of political capital to be gained off of stacking jail cells and killing off the offenders. People claim they feel safer, justice is being done, and politicians are doing their job of curbing violent crime offenders from our neighborhoods.

Reality shows that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. People still do violent and malicious crimes every day. I am not saying that everyone who goes to death row is innocent because certainly they are not, but there should be absolute proof that a person committed the crime deserving of death.

Our justice system is not set up in absolutes, you just have to prove someone is guilty by a reasonable doubt. I believe this is the correct term reasonable doubt. As long as it is that way innocent people will always be put to death.

There should be a moritorium on the death penalty, period!

By the way, is this man white? I bet he is, that is why there is so much sympathy here.
Posted By Anonymous Sylvie Grace, Atlanta, Georgia : 4:07 PM ET
Dear Ms. Myth Buster aka Randy:

Yes, we TIVO Myth Busters because the boys are well beyond the Mentos and Coke experiments! My son wanted a bunsen burner from the Easter bunny! (I am not kidding!)

We will look forward to your report tonight. You always do an outstanding job!

Randy, if you are okay with it, we will leave the Dirty Job segments to Rick Sanchez! Really who wants to spend the night in an igloo or falling off a cruise ship?!
Posted By Anonymous Renee Bradenton, FL : 4:10 PM ET
I am pretty liberal when it comes to politics. But I am in favor of the death penalty for murderers (and I wish for rapists and child molesters) HOWEVER, there must be absolute proof (DNA etc.) It sounds like the evidence in this case was circumstantial. I think Texas monumentally screwed this one up. And they had access to this new information and STILL screwed up. This is so bad.
Posted By Anonymous Debbie, Denham Springs, LA : 4:55 PM ET
Randi,
I am astonished that Texas Governor Rick Perry's office wouldn't comment for this report. NOT! There are a lot of really great reasons to love Texas but our express lane to the death chamber is not one of them. There are also a lot of wonderful loving people in this state, unfortunately it appears that the majority of the voters have the "how long can I ride this buckin' bull" attitude. Take our last two governors, PLEASE! Oh, right, America took George "W"ar Bush off our hands. Now we are all counting the seconds until he is THROWN from his own BULL!
The death penalty surely leaves a lot to be desired. I fear how many innocent have been put to death. Isn't this just another version of the Roman Galdiators in B.C.? Hmm, some things never change.
Randi, if you can ever get Governor Perry's office to talk to you, be sure and ask if Governor Perry ever had time to sign James Waller's exonneration papers. He is a busy little bee isn't he? A killer bee!
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches TX : 5:03 PM ET
I'd want every available piece of information before deciding the fate of another. Police and prosecutors are some of the most arrogant people on earth and would never admit to being wrong. The Texas governor is yet another egotistical fool with a cowboy mentality who wouldn't change his mind and give this guy a little more time to maybe, just maybe, be proven innocent. This is the primary reason the death penalty is so barbaric. It's final and only in the face of incontrovertible evidence, can one be absolutely sure of another's guilt.
Posted By Anonymous A. Roy Olson, Tucson AZ : 5:29 PM ET
Randi,

Crazed glass and flashover may be new "terms" in firefighting, but the process for each has been around for many years.

Flashover is usually caused by excessive heat in an area, which causes combustion. It is often much the same in appearance as a backdraft. Should there be a sudden force of ventilation the heat bursts into flame much faster.

Crazed glass is a method many crafters have used for fifty years or so. They put marbles in the oven, heated them, then plunged them into very cold water. Believe me, they WILL crack, some even break. If the marbles were greens or purple they were often glued in the familiar grape cluster pattern, greenery was then added. There must be someone out there who remembers seeing these somewhere!

Maggie
Posted By Anonymous Maggie, GVMO : 6:02 PM ET
Its time all executions are stayed until evidence is reviewed! We don't need anymore tragedies! What is wrong with us?
Posted By Anonymous Marian Hanson, Gig Harbor, WA : 6:06 PM ET
Executions of innocent men and women in Texas is hardly news. There is a term called TEXAS JUSTICE - which means the verdict is known long before the evidence is even presented.

Texas is a disgrace on so many levels - education, civil rights, criminal justice - sadly, they seem proud of it.
Posted By Anonymous Grant Devereaux, Nashville TN : 7:41 PM ET
What a tragedy. I can't imagine being a juror in that situation, the kind of guilt they must feel for that man.
Posted By Anonymous Jess, Paris, KY : 8:02 PM ET
I have always found it interesting that most Pro-Lifers are also proponents of the Death Penalty, yet most pro-choice advocates are opposed to the death penalty. Seems rather ironic. That is why I, as I Catholic am an opponent of the death penalty and I am pro-life. Let's be consistent. Let God decide who dies. You never know who you might be killing. An innocent life is an innocent life.
Posted By Anonymous Kyle, Odenton MD : 8:23 PM ET
I would have re-opened it just to be sure. If the new method of proving arson is the gold standard, then it should have been used to prove this man's innocence or guilt. Unfortunately, we live in a society where every man who goes to prison considers himself innocent and thus should be freed. Hard to have sympathy, really, but on death row, one should be as absolute as possible as to their guilt.
Posted By Anonymous Jeffrey, The Woodlands, Texas : 8:34 PM ET
As a result of this, the Innocence Project of Texas is conducting a review of arson convictions in Texas. Currently, there are over 650 inmates incarcerated for arson and related crimes in Texas. Hopefully, we will not allow another Willingham wrongful execution to occur.
Posted By Anonymous Jim Graham, Fort Worth, TX : 8:52 PM ET
The death penalty should be banned for this reason alone.
The death of even one innocent is not OK.
DNA is proving time and time again good meaning police and prosecutors(and not so good meaning) are as human as the rest of us and capable of making mistakes.
When a civilian makes a mistake that causes death they call it involuntary man slaughter or negligent homicide. Is there a difference?
Also, I know from experience "justice" can be bought. A paid real laywer vs an appointed public defender for the indigent can make the difference in proving ones innocence;yes,these days the accused must prove innocence, not the prosecutor proving guilt. Another travesty.
Once one makes this terrible terrible mistake, how is it corrected when the wrongly accused is dead? One would think as devastating as being wrongly labeled a child molester and put into the general population with rapists and murders for 10+ years, things could not get any worse. But what if we take your life? And then find the truth after the fact? Absolutely unacceptable in The United States. We are supposed to be better than that and send our example of doing the right thing to the world. Ban this draconian practice before the wrongly accused are killed again.
Posted By Anonymous Stu Indianapolis Indiana : 8:58 PM ET
If anyone thinks this is the first, or only, possible extermination of an innocent human being, I have some swamp land to sell you... Kudos to CNN and Anderson for once again reminding people that FALLIBLE human beings have 'no business' in the killing business. Life without parole is cheaper, harsher punishment, and allows the jailer to say "OOPS! our bad: You are free to go" if and when a mistake is discovered. You cannot free, or apologize to, a dead man (or woman).
Posted By Anonymous Carolyn Gray, Jupiter, FL : 9:18 PM ET
We are a society that relies science to be proof.Research may show high accuracy for crimes through DNA or past investigation, but nonetheless we need to stay alert and focus to each individual crime. No two crimes are identical.
Posted By Anonymous Tomoe Irvine CA : 9:41 PM ET
It seems that in Texas, its too quick to point a finger. And why wouldnt someone try to hear that there is evidence proving an investigation wrong?
Posted By Anonymous Ione McGee Corpus Christi, Texas : 10:32 PM ET
I heard nothing about the presence or absence of accelerants in your report. Was their any analysis of the debris for the presence of accelerants?
Posted By Anonymous Dave McNamara, Rowlett TX : 10:53 PM ET
It is with continued repulsion that I witness story after story of innocent people being sent to their death by states in the United States. It also still amazes me that we in this country still continue to sentence people to death. This story is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope this opens the larger dialogue of the death penalty. We must do everything we can to abolish the death penalty, if for no other reason than to stop the killing of the innocent. To date, 123 people have been removed from death rows across the nation during the same time period in which we executed almost 1100 people. That sort of average is not only unacceptable, it should be criminal.

Robert Nave
Vice-Chairperson, National Steering Committee, Amnesty Internationals Program to Abolish the Death Penalty
Posted By Anonymous Robert Nave, Waterbury, Connecticut : 10:56 PM ET
This story was contrived and lacked any sense of fairness. Two examples:
1. It was stated that "most fire investigators rejected" NFPA 921. There is no source for this statement. Why? Because it is blatantly false.
2. The statement was made that it took 10 years for the International Association of Arson Investigators to adopt NFPA 921. Again, completely false. The IAAI had many members, including an official representative on the committee from day one. The document has been one of the primary sources for the IAAI's Certified Fire Investigator exam from day one.

As far as one of the "experts", ask Mr. Carpenter if the investigators in the Seton Hall University case got it wrong.

This story told a biased, very one-sided view of fire investigators and has done a tremendous disservice to the fire investigators who, every day, apply the proper fire science and get it right.
Posted By Anonymous George Wendt, Flanders, NJ : 10:59 PM ET
The science that Mr Lentini says is new science has been inpractice for over 20 years,flashover has been taught in the fire service for years.It is true that certain concepts used in the sixties in fire investigation have been shown invalid,however his insinuation that most fire investigators do not use applied SCIENCE is a charge that he cannot support by facts,it is a blanket indictment of hard working and professional fire dept and police dept fire investigators,many who have conducted such investigations for years.As in any criminal investigation mistakes can be made and mistakes in investigating death penalty cases are are extremely serious.If such mistakes can be proven to have occured those convictions must be overturned if justice is to be served.But Mr Lenti should not indict and stereotype as he did in your piece.
Posted By Anonymous Ward W Caddington,Hughesville MD : 11:14 PM ET
Hi Randi,
It would appear that maybe past forensics weren't 100 percent right. One would hope this new science won't be debunked as well some years down the road. It's a tragedy that any innocent person would be at the mercy of uncertain facts. Take Care
Posted By Anonymous Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 11:19 PM ET
I would definitely want new ways of looking at evidence heard because it can prove someone was innocent of whatever charges were brought against him/her. Plus, new ways of looking at evidence should be heard in court by law to help prevent an innocent man from serving time or facing the death penalty.
And if an innocent person did serve time or was executed, then he/she or his/her surviving family, respectively, should be compensated by the state (or federal government if the execution was a federal execution) for the mistakes that they made in their investigation.
Posted By Anonymous Jared, Boston, MA : 11:28 PM ET
My name is Trina Willingham, Todd's niece. Its ashame that more people are not aware of the new methods used to determine arson. Shows like tonight will help in spreading the news. The new arson manual came out just several months I believe after my uncle's trial and I don't think it was ever mentioned. But as u have seen tonight.. the man that played a major part of the conviction still believes in the old methods. So much for being open minded. Love the way John Lentini puts it BS. Nothing will ever bring him back but with this tragedy if we can help one person to get off death row or to be released it will be worth it. My goal is to spread the news that there are innocent people on death row.... I have seen it.. my family has lived it.
Posted By Anonymous Trina Willingham Quinton, Ardmore, Oklahoma : 11:47 PM ET
I think Mr. Cooper only gave us about a 190 degree view of this topic on fire investigation instead of a full 360 degree view. I'm most positive that Mr. Sandy Burnette a well respected attorney who is involved with the fire investigation field had a lot more relative information to add than just the 10 degrees that you afforded him.

As to the new science and flashover, this is nothing new. I learned about flashover and its effects including burning of the floor 34 years ago when I 1st entered the fire service.

As to the gold standard I believe this was refereed to the NFPA 921(National Fire Protection Association�s) - A Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. The optimum word is a GUIDE and not Standard. And there is a good reason for that. The guide which I use (I must be one of the very few who do according to your show) as well as agree with its concept is a living document that is updated about every 3 years. It is not a complete document and continuously has adjustments / updates added and removed from it. Even as far as information that has been removed at one point and then later being added again at another time.

Yes I am a fire investigator and I am a truth seeker and not a case maker.
For a segment that should have followed the same credence, I call this show BS for a "Bad Show" and one that sizzled out.
Posted By Anonymous Gene Pietzak, Uniondale, NY : 12:15 AM ET
Once again I wish we at least had the opportunity to clear a person of the deaht penalty in the state of Wisconsin...we don't even have it yet. Most of us in Madison know that the death penalty is a good and necessary part of our civic duty to advocate when appropriate. We are ready to take the burden on ourselves to sentence people to death and admit mistakes later, unlike those in Texas...maybe if we have the death penalty here one day we to may be able to exonerate someone like Cameron.
Posted By Anonymous Brant, Madison, Wisconsin : 1:05 AM ET
Thank goodness for forensic arson science, but what is most shocking is the report that Mr. Willingham, notwithstanding past difficulties, was convicted as a direct outcome of an allegation by a compromised source: his wife engaged in a custody battle. This angle is the thin edge of what may be a much larger story, the susceptibility of sitting-duck-gullible judiciary in this country to manipulation by much craftier witnesses and plaintiffs than the founding fathers sought to protect us against through the Constitution and Bill of Rights in simpler times. Chercher la femme, indeed! The fact that the Innocence Project can prove the innocence of even one convicted innocent in the U.S. does not yet receive the kind
of attention it deserves when, for Mr. Willingham and his ilk, the world comes to a not-newsworthy-enough end. Whither morality in the U.S. if one can abjectly neglect those isolated or friendless individuals who are folded, spindled, and mutilated by a system that is shamelessly manipulated by an evil antagonist (wearing sheep's clothing) in a legal proceeding? Just as none save Houdini could penetrate the ruses of spiritualist charlatans early in the 20th century, today's legal system is populated by ambitious justices who are not the equal of a King Solomon -- a judge who could
compel honest accounting on the part of a cunning accuser having skin in the game. If this amounts to a wake-up call on behalf of grown males abused by an all-too-innocent legal system which knee-jerk-presumes them to lack the nurturing gravitas of their distaff counterparts, so be it.
Posted By Anonymous Jos. Abeles, East Brunswick, NJ : 2:35 AM ET
I have lost loved ones to a home fire. I don't know what would have happen had some investigator blamed me for the accidental fire that took their lives.If there is a possibility that they could be wrong they need to look for the truth and not worry about their bruised egos.Lives are at stake.Texas should have enough of convicting the wrong people.
Posted By Anonymous Denise Todd,Columbus,Ms : 3:14 AM ET
Texas is, and has been, capital-punishment crazy. The possibility of someone's innocence doesn't seem to deter Texas. Makes me wonder how the Governor can sleep at night.

I don't have to have a loved one behind bars to want the new ways of looking at evidence heard.

And, until you can give me an ironclad guarantee that no innocent people will be murdered by our state officials in the name of justice, I will be against capital punishment.
Posted By Anonymous Perry, Framingham, MA : 6:52 AM ET
Capital punshiment should be banned. As long as there is even one chance that an innocent person will be executed, then NO ONE should be executed. Execution is final. You cannot just say "oops"!
Posted By Anonymous Anne, Fredericton, N.B. Canada : 7:04 AM ET
The conventional wisdom of the day was wrong. However, the investigators and prosecutor no doubt believed at the time that they were convicting a guilty man of a horrendous crime. So far, this is nothing more than a tragic mistake. What's inexcusable is that authorities continue to insist Willingham was guilty despite the evidence. Do they still believe the old wives tales presented as evidence of arson in his case? Does that mean they continue to use such junk science to convict innocent people today?

The Willingham case appears to have been a good faith prosecution � at least at the time. What happens when you combine bad fire science with a dishonest prosecution? See http://truthinjustice.org/masonsummary/masonsummary.html for another case where John Lentini and Doug Carpenter reached a similar conclusion based on a post-conviction scientific analysis of the evidence. Only in this case, there were so many abuses and evidence manipulations, it's hard to believe that the BS presented to the court wasn't known to be BS at the time. There's also an excellent article on the Truth in Justice Editorial Blog about how our justice system really works.
Posted By Anonymous Susan Anderson, Binghamton, NY : 8:20 AM ET
Who wouldn't want the "new ways" heard? Society is always evolving, and new discoveries are always being made--from the simple to the complex. It is important for society to know about them in an effort to create understanding elsewhere--it's not a matter of whether or not we agree to share the "new ways".

Sure, in this case, this approach will take a lot of manpower (reopening/revisiting all arson convictions--yikes), but at what cost? What are we willing to sacrifice? We shouldn't even need to ask that question. However, it's no secret that our justice system is heavily flawed. Perhaps part of the problem lies with improving the system before you can enforce its components, new and old, appropriately.
Posted By Anonymous Brenda, Annapolis, MD : 9:08 AM ET
This story is such a tradgedy. This is one example of why I am personally torn on the topic of the death penalty. So authorities think its a waste of time to investigate on behalf of people that are possibly innocent? Especially those on death row? Why is that a waste?

It especially saddens me that the governor had a chance to save a mans life, who was possibly innocent, and refused. Why? To set an example?
Posted By Anonymous Melissa Savelloni, West Chester PA : 11:04 AM ET
Due to the lg# of conviction reversals in Dallas County, re: DNA testing, I feel ALL executions in this state need to be halted & mandatory process, using all available forensic techniques, be afforded all those currently sitting on Death Row. If for no other reason than possibly reversing even 1 conviction, we owe it to all those involved, the victims family doesn't deserve to find out after it's too late we didn't have the right guy, it only adds more pain to their heartache. Why the rush? The prisoners aren't going anywhere, if we execute them next yr instead of next wk, the end result is the same.
Posted By Anonymous Lin, Garland Tx : 12:53 PM ET
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