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The death of an innocent man
Christmas night, 1993, a man wakes to his daughter crying, “Daddy! Daddy!” By his bed. His room is filled with smoke, heat is radiating in the air, the walls are on fire. Smoke stings at his eyes and bites at his throat; as he jumps out of his bed, and calls for his two year old daughter, Amber, but can not hear or see her any longer. Feeling along the soot covered ground, his racing mind wonders if she was in his imagination; if she has already escaped or if she is trapped in another room. He sprints out into the hallway. He tries to enter the bedroom where his other one year old twin daughters, Karmon and Kameron, lay sleeping, but vicious flames lick at his arms and light his hair on fire. Running down the hallway, he sprints through the front door and escapes into the cool night air.
From two homes down, neighbors have arrived with realization that his house is burning down. Still standing on the front porch, Cameron Todd Willingham cries, “My babies are burning up!” And the women runs back to her home to call the fire department, while her daughter stands and watches Willingham search for a way into his children's bedroom, frantically, he grabs a stick, and smashes in a window, flames jump out at him, and suddenly they explode through the remaining windows, making entry impossible. He retreats into the yard, and cries, “My babies...” and he falls silent, as if he had blocked the fire out of his mind.
The fire department arrived moments later, but they were too late. His two one year old girls were found badly burned and dead in their bedroom, his two year old daughter was found in his bedroom, C.P.R was used to resuscitate her, but she was too far gone. All three children's cause of death had been found to be smoke inhalation. In an instant, Willingham's entire family had been taken from him. He was quoted as saying, “My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire, I couldn’t get my babies out.”
Two fire investigators were given the job to search his home, as he lay in a hospital bed mourning the loss of his three small children, these investigators found evidence that would later condemn him to death. After searching the house, they discovered twenty main points of evidence that proved the fire was no accident, and it was indeed an arson. Even though their was no clear motive—the children had life insurance policies, but these totaled up to less then fifteen thousand dollars, and their grandfather was listed as the main beneficiary; the police chalked it up to him being a sociopath, with children that got in the way of his “dart throwing” and “beer drinking.”
The evidence of arson seemed airtight. Splash patterns along the walls proved accelerate had been used, a V shape near the door indicated that the fire had been started there, burn patterns showed that the fire had burnt a path, most likely on accelerates, from the front door, to the back of the house. And perhaps most damning of all; Willingham's feet hadn't been burnt as escaped. Evidence from the fire proved that the accelerates caused the fire to burn low and hot, if he had escaped after it had already started, then his feet would have been badly burned.
On the night of January 8, 1992, two weeks after the fire, Willingham was riding in a car with his wife, Stacy, when SWAT teams surrounded them, and they arrested him for the murder of his children. Willingham was assigned two lawyers of the state, neither of which believed in his innocence, “Everyone thinks defense lawyers must believe their clients are innocent, but that’s seldom true,” Martin, one of the lawyers said, “Most of the time, they’re guilty as sin.” He added of Willingham, “All the evidence showed that he was one hundred per cent guilty. He poured accelerate all over the house and put lighter fluid under the kids’ beds.” It was, he said, “a classic arson case” there were “puddle patterns all over the place—no disputing those.” Willingham was once quoted as saying, “You don’t know what it’s like to have lawyers who won’t even believe you’re innocent.”
He refused to plead guilty during trial; even after his parents and family had begged him too--it would save him from the death penalty. He said, “I ain’t gonna plead to something I didn’t do, especially killing my own kids,” Even after losing her children, and the rest of her families expressed belief in his guilt, his wife also still believed in his innocence, “I know him in ways that no one else does when it comes to our children,” She said, “Therefore, I believe that there is no way he could have possibly committed this crime.”
The jury came back with a verdict—with less then one hour of deliberating: guilty. He was sentenced to the death penalty, and sent to live the last of his years on death row. A few years into his sentence, he was moved to a more secure prison, where Willingham was held in isolation in a sixty-square-foot cell, twenty-three hours a day; after months of living this way he wrote in his diary, “I just been trying to figure out why after having a wife and 3 beautiful children that I loved my life has to end like this. And sometimes it just seems like it is not worth it all. . . . In the 3 1/2 years I been here I have never felt that my life was as worthless and desolate as it is now,” another time he wrote in a letter, “This is a hard place, and it makes a person hard inside, I told myself that was one thing I did not want and that was for this place to make me bitter, but it is hard. They have executed at least one person every month I have been here. It is senseless and brutal. . . . You see, we are not living in here, we are only existing.”
Even though his community, part of his family, and much of his friends and neighbors now believed in his guilt, he still denied it; and he had very good reason too, he was innocent.
So what about the V shaped appearance of the fire, the splash marks (accusedly caused by accelerates), and the evidence it followed a path from the door? Well, this could all be explained with flash over. Flashover is caused by a fire when heat and gases are caught in the above air, causing the enclosed area to warm rapidly. This causes the fire to rapidly expand—windows explode outwards, just as they did in the Willingham fire, and the room is engulfed in flames. Because of sudden lack off oxygen, the fire will search for a new path, such as an open front door.
What is believed to really happen that night, is flashover occurred right after Willingham escaped; which is why his feet weren't burnt, the hall wasn't entirely on fire yet. Witnesses recall windows exploding outward shortly after he ran out the front door. The fire then followed along the path the fresh oxygen made—from that door. In a small fire, a V-shaped burn mark may pinpoint where a fire began, but during post-flashover these patterns can occur repeatedly, when various objects ignite. Post-flashover also explains the splash mark configurations--the only way to differentiate between splash marks caused by post-flash over and splash marks caused by accelerates is to take samples from the burn patterns and test them in a laboratory for the presence of flammable or combustible liquids.
All of this was discovered through the Lime Street experiement—done three years prior to the Willingham fire. John Lentini, a prosecutor originally using the experiment to gather evidence against a so called 'arsonist' says [of the Lime Street Fire], “This was my epiphany. I almost sent a man to die based on theories that were a load of crap.” Those same theories did send an innocent man to death row three years later—and he was put to death in Texas 12 years after he was sentenced. Just a few weeks prior to the date he was to die; a friend of Willingham sent the case file to a very notable fire investigator, Hurst. Hurst once said, “People investigated fire largely with a flat-earth approach. It looks like arson—therefore, it’s arson. My view is you have to have a scientific basis. Otherwise, it’s no different than witch-hunting.” He realized the so called proof of arson, was actually pointing towards flashover; and Willingham was an innocent man all along. He proved that all twenty points, that the original investigators had come up with, could be, and were more likely to be, caused by flashover. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in prison was about to be executed based on “junk science.” He sent the report to the final 12 people to review the case before he was to be put to death. This report was completely ignored; and Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death four days later regardless.
The day he was set to die, he was allowed to visit with friends and family one last time; but still they were separated by Plexiglas. Willingham’s mother and father began to cry. “Don’t be sad, Momma,” Willingham said. “In fifty-five minutes, I’m a free man. I’m going home to see my kids.” Before the lethal injection that was to permanently and irreversibly stop his heart, he was asked if he had any last words, he said, “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne,” On his death certificate, the cause was listed as “Homicide.”