Just before his execution in Texas for setting a fire that killed his three daughters, Cameron Todd Willingham declared his innocence one last time. While Texas authorities dismissed his protests, a Chicago Tribune investigation shows that Willingham was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that have been repudiated by scientific advances. Four fire experts consulted by the Tribune said the original investigation was flawed and it is even possible the fire was accidental.
Before Willingham died by lethal injection on Feb. 17, Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction. “There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire,” said Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. “It was just a fire.” Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for the Texas governor, said Perry carefully considered “all of the factors” in Willingham’s case before deciding against a stay.