On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. Killed in the fire were Willingham’s three daughters: two-year-old Amber Louise Kuykendall and one-year-old twins Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham. Willingham himself escaped the home with only minor burns. Stacy Kuykendall, Willingham’s then-wife and the mother of his three daughters, was not home at the time of the fire, as she was out shopping. Prosecutors charged that Willingham set the fire and killed the children in an attempt to cover up abuse of the girls. However, there was no evidence of child abuse, and Kuykendall told prosecutors that he had never abused the children. “Our kids were spoiled rotten”, she said, insisting he would never harm their children. The primary evidence leading to Willingham’s arrest and conviction was the result of police inspections after the fire, which determined that the fire had been started using some form of liquid accelerant. This evidence included a finding of char patterns in the floor in the shape of “puddles”, a finding of multiple starting points of the fire, and a finding that the fire had burned “fast and hot”, all considered to indicate a fire that had been ignited with the help of a liquid accelerant. The investigators also found charring under the aluminum front doorjamb that they believed was further indication of a liquid accelerant, and tested positive for such an accelerant in the area of the front door. Although no clear motive was found, and Willingham’s wife denied that they had fought prior to the night of the fire, later testimony from a fellow inmate claimed that Willingham had confessed to starting the fire.
Charcoal starter fluid and an outdoor grill were kept on the front porch of Willingham’s house as evidenced by a melted container found there. Some of this fluid may have entered the front doorway of the house carried along by fire hose water. While laboratory tests verified that an accelerant was used only near the front porch, it was alleged that this fluid was deliberately poured near the front porch, a children’s bedroom and a hallway to start the fire and that Willingham included the entranceway by the front porch so as to impede rescue attempts. Willingham volunteered the information that squirrels had been getting into his roof in the weeks prior to the fire, and suggested to neighbors immediately afterwards that the fire was of electrical origin. He maintained this explanation, with qualifications as to his lack of expertise, in his police statement. The prosecution used this and other arson theories, some of which have since been brought into question.
In 2004, Gerald Hurst, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, examined the arson evidence compiled by state deputy fire marshal Manuel Vasquez. Hurst said that Vasquez was incorrect when he said that the extreme heat of the fire (as evidenced by a melted aluminum threshold) indicated that an accelerant was used, and said that experiments prove that wood and liquid accelerant fires can burn with equal heat. Hurst’s own experiments showed that burning with an accelerant does not leave the kind of brown stains that Vasquez claimed were created that way. Hurst also said that the crazed glass that Vasquez said was caused by a liquid accelerant had been found as a result of brush fires elsewhere. Experiments showed that crazed glass was caused not by rapid heating but by cooling, and that glass cooled by water from a fire hose was more likely to have a crazed or cracked pattern. A $20,000 experimental house fire set without an accelerant created the same pour patterns and V shaped pattern that Vasquez attributed to the use of a liquid accelerant. Vasquez thought that Willingham lied when he said he escaped without burning his feet, because he thought that an accelerant was used that would spread fire along the floor. However, since no accelerant was needed to create the results found, Willingham could well have been telling the truth when he said that he ran out without burning his feet, presuming he left before the fire achieved flashover.
According to Hurst, when a fire reaches the flashover threshold, it is impossible to visually identify accelerant patterns. While the prosecutor thought that the “bizarre” path of the flame indicated that an accelerant was used, Hurst said that the path of the fire followed a post-flashover pattern of going in the direction of ventilation. Although Willingham was accused of using an accelerant in three different places, the front porch was the only place where an accelerant was verified by laboratory tests, and a photograph taken of the house before the fire showed that a charcoal grill was there. The family confirmed that lighter fluid was by the grill used for family barbecues. Water sprayed by firefighters likely spread the lighter fluid from the melted container. All twenty of the indications listed by Vasquez of an accelerant being used were rebutted by Hurst. On returning to the house after the fire in the company of fireman Ron Franks, Willingham said that he had been over earlier and poured flammable British Sterling cologne in the hallway from the bathroom to the bedroom in which the twins had died, because they had loved its smell when they were alive.
A report prepared by Craig Beyler for the Texas Forensic Science Commission said that investigators ignored the scientific method for analyzing fires described in NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations and relied on “folklore” and “myths”. Beyler also said that Vasquez was incorrect when he said that witnesses saw three different fires, and that they only reported smoke from the fire that began in the bedroom. Beyler wrote in his report, “in the end, the only (basis) for the determination of arson … is the burn patterns on the floor of the children’s bedroom, the hallway and the porch interpreted as accelerant spill. None of these determinations have any basis in modern fire science.” However, the City of Corsicana was extremely critical of Beyler’s report, and produced a 21-page response pointing out that his report lacked objectivity, stating “Given some of Dr. Beyler’s distortions of the trial record, as described below, it may be that he has assumed the role of an advocate.” The Board of Pardons and Paroles received Hurst’s description, but unanimously denied Willingham’s petition for clemency. Governor Perry refused to grant a stay of execution, saying through a spokesperson that “The Governor made his decision based on the facts of the case.” Governor Perry said that the “supposed experts” (using finger quotes) were wrong and not to listen to anti-death penalty “propaganda”. Perry aide Mary Anne Wiley said the commission’s $30,000 hiring of fire scientist Craig Beyler was a waste of taxpayer money. Jackson, one of the prosecutors, admitted that an “undeniably flawed forensic report” was used to convict Willingham, but claimed that other reasons established guilt.
In addition to the arson evidence, a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb claimed Willingham confessed that he set the fire to hide an injury or death of one of the girls, caused by his wife, although none of the girls were found at the time of death to have physical injuries still distinguishable after the effects of the fire. Webb later told a reporter for The New Yorker, “it’s very possible I misunderstood what he said. Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy. My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that.”. At Willingham’s trial, Webb offered an explanation for the individual, distinguishable burns that were found on Amber’s forehead and arm, stating that Willingham confessed to burning her twice with a piece of “wadded up” paper in an effort to make it appear as though the children were “playing with fire”. Webb was later diagnosed bipolar and even the prosecutor described Webb as “an unreliable kind of guy”, yet after Webb’s testimony Jackson successfully got him released from prison early. Webb later sent Jackson a Motion to Recant Testimony, that declared, “Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges.” Willingham’s attorneys were not notified and Webb later recanted his recantation. Webb later said, “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”
Webb and prosecutor John Jackson consistently denied that Webb was offered a sentence reduction in return for his testimony against Willingham (evidence of such a deal would have been exculpatory). In 2014, Innocence Project investigators said that they had discovered a handwritten note in Webb’s files indicating that just such a deal was in play. During the penalty phase of the trial a prosecutor said that Willingham’s tattoo of a skull and serpent fit the profile of a sociopath. Two medical experts confirmed the theory. A psychologist was asked to interpret Willingham’s Iron Maiden poster, and said that a picture of a fist punching through a skull signified violence and death. He added that Willingham’s Led Zeppelin poster of a fallen angel was “many times” an indicator of “cultive-type” activities. Psychiatrist James Grigson said that a man of Willingham’s criminal history was an “extremely severe sociopath” and was incurable. Grigson was an expert witness for the prosecution in murder trials across the state of Texas. Prior to his death, he was expelled by the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for unethical conduct, the APA stating that Grigson had violated the organization’s ethics code by “arriving at a psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100 per cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts”.
Further to the testimony of Webb and the arson evidence, the prosecution sought to establish that Willingham’s conduct at the time of the fire and in the days afterwards was suspicious. As the fire took hold, Willingham was driven out through the front door of his house, where he crouched down near the entrance. On seeing neighbor Diane Barbee, Willingham began to shout at her to call 911, shouting “My babies are in there!” At trial, Willingham’s conduct at the scene was described as oscillating between collected and hysterical – at times screaming for assistance, and at other times calmly pushing his car back from the flames that were engulfing his house. Eyewitnesses also described his appearance as having “singed hair on his chest, eyelids, and head and had a two inch burn injury on his right shoulder, but the prosecution highlighted the absence of any evidence of smoke inhalation. His wrists and hands were blackened with smoke. He was eventually transported to the hospital for treatment, still resisting and still in handcuffs.”
According to their sworn statements, both Brandice Barbee and Diane Barbee urged Willingham to return into the house to rescue his children, as according to Brandice Barbee, “all I could see was smoke”. According to Brandice, he refused, and went to move his car away from the fire before returning to sit on a nearby lawn “not once attempting to go inside to rescue his children”. Once the fire had reached flashover and the fire department arrived, Willingham became far more agitated, to the point of being restrained by emergency services. In the following days, Willingham would return to the house with some family and friends, this gathering being described by neighbors as having an odd levity, which was seen to turn sombre on the arrival of authorities. On returning to the scene of the fire with fireman Ron Franks, in an effort to recover personal property (which was described as a very usual request at trial), Willingham was visibly dismayed to be unable to find a dart set. At a local bar, where a fundraiser was held for the Willingham family, he placed an order for a replacement set, stating that “money was not a problem now”.
Willingham was charged with murder on January 8, 1992. During his trial in August 1992, he was offered a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, which he turned down insisting he was innocent. At trial, the fire investigator Vasquez testified that there were three points of origin for the fire, which indicated that the fire was “intentionally set by human hands”. A sample of burned material near the doorway of the house tested positive for mineral spirits, indicating the presence of lighter fluid. Willingham had escaped the fire with bare feet and no burn marks. This was taken as evidence that accelerant was poured by Willingham as he left the house. Several witnesses testified for the prosecution. In 2009, John Jackson, the prosecutor at the trial stated that burns suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself. However, The New Yorker writer David Grann says that fire investigators who reviewed the case told him that “Willingham’s first-degree and second-degree burns were consistent with being in a fire before the moment of ‘flashover’ – that is, when everything in a room suddenly ignites.”
Commenting on the condition of the house, Jackson added “any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requiring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.” There were two refrigerators in the Willingham house. Jimmie Hensley, a police detective, and Douglas Fogg, the assistant fire chief, who both investigated the fire, told The New Yorker author Grann that they had never believed that the fridge was part of the arson plot. “It didn’t have [anything] to do with the fire,” Fogg said. Jackson also contradicted Willingham’s account by claiming blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the fire revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke. Willingham’s statement and eyewitness accounts had detailed rescue attempts. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination, which “was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner,” according to Jackson. Against the advice of his own counsel, Willingham also declined a life sentence in exchange for his guilty plea. He insisted he would not admit to something he had not done, even if it meant sparing his life. During his trial Willingham declined to offer testimony in his own defense.
Willingham had the Texas Department of Criminal Justice number 999041. While on death row, Willingham was initially incarcerated in the Ellis Unit, and later in the Polunsky Unit. Willingham maintained his innocence up until his death and spent years trying to appeal his conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Willingham a writ of habeas corpus a month before his execution. Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and fire investigator, reviewed the case and concluded there was “no evidence of arson”, the same conclusion reached by other fire investigators. Hurst’s report was sent to governor Rick Perry’s office as well as Board of Pardons and Paroles along with Willingham’s appeal for clemency. Neither responded to Willingham’s appeals. In response to allegations that he allowed the execution of an innocent man, Perry was quoted as stating “he was a wife beater.” “The whole case was based on the purest form of junk science,” Hurst later said. “There was no item of evidence that indicated arson.” Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the Governor had weighed the “totality of the issues that led to (Willingham’s) conviction.” She said he was aware of a “claim of a reinterpretation of (the) arson testimony.” Willingham was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004, at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. He was 36 years old.
- January, 09, 1968
- February, 17, 2004
- Huntsville, Texas
Cause of Death
- execution by lethal injection