FRONTLINE

S2010 E14 | FULL EPISODE

Death By Fire

Did the state of Texas execute an innocent man? FRONTLINE investigates the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

AIRED: October 19, 2010 | 0:53:44
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TRANSCRIPT

>>Tonight on Frontline, the story of a fire.

>> My little girl was crying, "Daddy, Daddy!"

When I woke up, the whole house was in smoke.

>>A man accused...

>> He was guilty.

He really set that fire and killed those kids.

>>An execution...

>> It's really a shame

we couldn't put him to death three times,

since he took three lives.

>>And a question of guilt...

(shutter clicking)

>> There is not one iota of evidence

that the fire was arson.

>>...that sparked a national debate.

>> The state of Texas executed a man

for a crime that they couldn't prove was really a crime.

>>Tonight on Frontline: "Death By Fire."

>> It's small town America.

It's football games on Friday nights.

>> Everybody gets along, everybody knows everybody.

This is a nice country community.

>> Corsicana is a wonderful place to live,

but every town has their bad people in it,

and bad things happen in every town.

So we're no different than anybody else.

>> It was the 23rd of December.

"The Price is Right" was on, that was what I was watching.

Two or three of the girls went out on the back patio

and come running in the house, and said,

"Mama, I think Sheila's house is on fire."

I run to the front and out the door,

and that's when I seen Todd at his front door,

and he started screaming, "My babies.

Oh, my babies, my babies are burning."

>> NARRATOR: Their neighbor,

23-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham,

was in the house with his three children when the fire started.

>> A call came across the scanner.

There was a house fire with possibly people trapped in it.

>> I remember my mom screaming,

"Go back in, go, go try to get the babies."

>> And I grabbed him, and I said,

"Is there anybody in the house?"

He said, "Yes, my twins are in that room right there."

Well, I went in the front door and I went to the left,

and that's as far as I could get.

It was completely engulfed in fire.

(sirens blaring)

>> I pulled up on the scene, got out,

immediately started stretching the fire line.

I made entry into the house through the front windows,

knocking the fire down as I went.

>> The first fire fighter came out,

he was cradling a small child in his arms,

and he began to drop to one knee.

And as he began to drop to one knee,

the little girl's arm just...

just fell limp right at her side,

just, you know, just like a little rag doll.

>> I went back to the fire room looking for the children.

At that time, Chief Fogg was in there,

and he had already located the children,

but they were both dead.

>> NARRATOR: Firefighters tried to save two-year-old Amber,

but she died shortly after reaching the hospital.

All three children-- Amber, Karmon and Kameron--

were dead.

Their mother, Stacy,

was Christmas shopping at a thrift store

when the police told her.

>> In the blackened ugliness, there are remnants of a fire.

There are remnants of Christmas as well:

a melted Christmas tree with a few ornaments,

a teddy bear still waiting for Christmas morning.

And there are two parents who want this Christmas to go away.

>> My little girl was crying, "Daddy, daddy!"

And when I woke up, the whole house was in smoke.

>> NARRATOR: Todd Willingham was virtually unharmed.

>> He did have some minor burns on his shoulder,

and his hair was singed.

To me, it just was not...

the injuries were not consistent with being in a burning house

that was supposedly burning so bad that...

that he had to get out and couldn't find his kids.

>> NARRATOR: Around town in Corsicana, Texas,

Willingham's lack of serious injuries

and a night of partying after the fire fueled rumors.

>> Immediately after the children

were killed in the fire, he was seen at a local bar

essentially exhibiting behavior that was completely inconsistent

with a person who had lost his three children.

>> When the Willingham children died,

several of us thought it would be a good idea

if we did a benefit dart tournament

to raise funds to help with their burial.

Todd and Stacy Willingham showed up

the night that we had the tournament.

Todd got too involved in the fun.

>> And he was heard to brag to others

that he wouldn't have anything to worry about now

because the money would start rolling in

because people would feel sorry for him.

>> He showed a great interest in a new pair of darts,

and that really kind of shocked me.

I thought, "Well, I'm really not going to let you give me back

the money that I just gave you for a new pair of darts."

So I just gave them to him so that he wouldn't lose the money

that I wanted him to spend on those funerals.

>> NARRATOR: The police launched an investigation.

Todd Willingham was the primary suspect.

>> You've got to count his actions before and after,

you've got to count his actions during the fire

and things like that.

That makes the whole story, not just one little segment of it;

it's every bit of the story.

>> NARRATOR: The police had been to Willingham's house before.

>> We'd been over to Todd's house

where he'd got physical with his wife Stacy

on a couple occasions.

>> He was a very mean man.

He beat on Stacy all the time.

I mean, you know...

I mean, this was, like, every day.

>> They could hear the impact of him hitting his wife

and his wife hitting the floor.

His statements to her that were...

could be overheard throughout the neighborhood:

"Don't get up, bitch, or I'll hit you again."

>> I figured he would kill Stacy, you know.

That's how bad it was.

You know, something terrible is going to happen,

and he will eventually kill her.

>> NARRATOR: Witnesses who had been at the fire

also told police that Willingham did nothing

to rescue his children.

>> Once he got outside, I cannot find anybody who actually said

he made an attempt to get back in to save his kids.

>> He didn't try to go back in.

Not one time.

>> Putting that whole picture together made me believe

that he was guilty of homicide,

that he killed his three little girls.

And my job was to find how them little girls died,

and if it is an act, a criminal act,

it's my job to build a case

so he can be prosecuted for his act.

>> NARRATOR: As soon as the fire was out,

the search for the cause of the blaze began.

>> NARRATOR: Investigators came to believe

that this was a crime scene.

>> You start by eliminating accidental causes.

>> When you get through with your accidental causes,

what's left?

>> NARRATOR: They figured the fire had started on the floor.

They were looking for evidence that something flammable

might have been poured there.

>> In the children's room, there...

they were signs of what we thought was an accelerant

poured on the floor.

Usually accelerants will leak through the cracks on the floor

and burn underneath, and the fire burns up.

>> NARRATOR: Then, at the door to the porch,

investigators found what they were looking for.

>> There was an unusual burn pattern

on the aluminum threshold plate,

which indicates that something had been introduced,

poured down, leaked through.

We took a sample of that,

and it came back as a positive sample

for charcoal lighter fluid.

And I'm thinking that's the first time I called it arson.

>> NARRATOR: The official state report on the fire

listed 20 indicators of arson.

Investigators were now convinced.

>> NARRATOR: The police called in Todd Willingham.

>> My dad told him to go down there and give a statement,

and when he went and gave a statement,

he talks too much.

And I don't know what all he said,

but whatever he said, that started it.

>> Just his whole demeanor to me

looked like he just wanted to tell a story.

More like he was bragging about it

than, you know, being remorseful.

He was more like he was proud of his actions,

that he claimed he tried to do to save his kids and stuff.

>> Willingham said he heard the oldest one calling "Daddy"

and went into the bedroom and crawled around on the floor

because the smoke was so thick and stuff,

looking for the babies, but he was unable to find them.

>> NARRATOR: But Officer Hensley wasn't buying the story.

>> After a while in this business,

you get to judge people

by their actions and their looks, you know.

And you're not 100 percent right,

but usually it's a good thing to go on.

Just looking at his eyes,

I didn't see any type of remorse or sympathy in them.

>> NARRATOR: And Willingham's story didn't seem to square up

with his lack of injuries.

>> He was barefoot when he come out,

and he had no burns on his feet.

But we could see where there was burns in the hallway,

and we can't figure out how he got out

without burning his feet.

>> NARRATOR: Detectives pushed Willingham to confess.

They even used pictures of his dead children.

>> Todd didn't show any remorse in the interview

until I actually showed him the pictures of his children.

And at that time, he started crying.

You know, I don't think he was sad so much

that he killed the kids

as much as that it's come into light

that, you know, he was a suspect in it.

>> NARRATOR: They charged him with murder.

Bail was set at $1 million.

They offered him a deal: confess and avoid the death penalty.

His court-appointed attorney, David Martin,

urged him to take the plea.

>> If all the evidence is overwhelming

that the person is guilty of the crime charged,

and the chances of introducing reasonable doubt

are slim to none in your professional opinion,

of course you'd rather have him accept a life sentence

and save his life.

>> NARRATOR: Despite the pressure,

Willingham refused to plead guilty.

He'd take his chances in front of a jury.

>> He wouldn't plead guilty.

He was very adamant.

He said they could kill him right then and there.

>> NARRATOR: The case went to trial in August of 1992.

The prosecution began with a surprising witness:

a jailhouse informant.

>> There was the testimony of Johnny Webb,

who had been incarcerated at the same time as Willingham

and who testified that Willingham had confessed.

>> He said, "Well, you know, I can't deal with what I've done."

And I said, "What are you talking about?"

And that's when he confessed to what he'd done.

>> NARRATOR: And Webb told prosecutors something else.

>> Willingham admitted to him

that he spread the accelerant on the floor

in the children's room

in sort of a pentagram or a star-shaped pattern.

>> NARRATOR: A pentagram.

To the prosecutor, it was a symbol for Satan worship,

and he offered posters found in Willingham's room as proof.

>> It was a poster of an iron bar

being driven through a person's head,

and there was some indication that it was some sort of a...

a Satanist image.

>> You got three little girls' lives involved.

They showed these kids to the jury

and you hear his past, you see that,

and the judge tells them to do what they need to be doing.

I mean, I don't know how much more

you could stack it against him, do you?

>> There's plenty of people

walking around in Corsicana, Texas,

that if that happened to them today,

they would get the benefit of the doubt

because they had treated their family

in a respectful manner and taken care of them, okay?

Todd Willingham had not treated his family

in a respected manner,

and he didn't get the benefit of the doubt

that some people would have.

>> NARRATOR: The trial lasted three days.

It only took an hour for the jury to find Willingham guilty.

He was sentenced to death.

>> You know, I've been criticized by some

because I've said that of course I thought he was guilty.

How stupid would you be,

how incompetent would you be as a defense attorney

if you just went in

and swallowed the story the defendant gave you?

The real fact of the matter is that Willingham was guilty.

He wasn't innocent.

He really set that fire and killed those kids.

>> I feel like justice was served

for those three little girls.

It was a jury of 12 people of this community

who determined that,

with all the evidence presented to them,

that he was guilty,

and that's the way the system works.

>> NARRATOR: Willingham was taken to the Texas state prison

at Huntsville to await his execution.

>> He said the worst thing in the world

is to be accused of what he is accused of

and to be found guilty of that,

and then have to go to death row and live with that.

>> When he was in death row,

they would step on his heels, you know,

and trip him and call him "baby killer"

and everything else, you know.

>> NARRATOR: Willingham sat on death row for seven years.

His appeals were going nowhere.

There was little interest in his case.

Then inmate number 999041 received a letter.

It was from 47-year-old Elizabeth Gilbert.

>> Someone asked me

if I would like to write a man on death row,

be a pen pal, and I was like, "Sure," and I volunteered.

I had been in a place in my life--

a relationship had ended, my parents were getting elderly,

I was kind of adrift.

The name that was given to me, just randomly,

was Todd Willingham.

>> NARRATOR: Willingham eagerly wrote back.

>> I was just really struck by the letter from Todd.

It was very polite.

It was very kind.

>> NARRATOR: Gilbert wanted to know more about Willingham.

She decided to meet him face to face.

>> I walked in expecting to see a black man,

you know, the whole stereotype.

And here was this handsome young white man

who was very polite and very genial.

>> NARRATOR: Willingham told her his version

of what happened at the fire.

>> The story he told me was, you know, this,

he woke up to a fire, you know.

He ran out of the house,

couldn't get back in to save his children.

There's a writer in me that was like, "This is a great story."

>> NARRATOR: Gilbert decided to find out for herself

who Todd Willingham really was.

His story began in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

>> Todd's mother had several children by different fathers

and Todd had been abandoned in California.

>> NARRATOR: Todd's father Gene had remarried.

His wife Eugenia raised Todd as her own.

>> We got Todd when he was 13 months old.

I thought he might be anxious and cry,

but he just crawled up in my lap.

That was it.

He acted like he'd always lived there.

He had a way of telling you how he felt.

He never came into the room when he didn't hug my neck.

>> NARRATOR: It was a different story with Todd's father.

>> He's the type of guy that...

just that you can't do anything right and everything's wrong.

Let's say that he has a hammer there,

and you borrow it and you put it back.

That's good, but it's not good enough

if it's not facing the same way.

>> His father was very strict, and Todd knew this,

but it didn't stop him from doing some things

that he got in trouble for.

>> NARRATOR: Todd struggled in school,

and Gilbert was surprised to learn

that by the sixth grade, he was already using drugs.

He liked to inhale the aerosol from spray paint cans.

>> I think he started huffing paint when he was 11.

He started on drugs at 11.

>> You know, I'd see signs, and I'd ask him

and he'd blame it on the other kids, you know.

>> His mind kind of stayed there.

To me, his thinking ability

always stayed at 11, 12, 13, along in there.

>> NARRATOR: During his trial,

prosecutors claimed that as Willingham got older,

he began to commit increasingly violent crimes.

>> He would have him a gang.

He would recruit younger kids that he could intimidate

and send them out to pull the burglaries

and bring the loot back to him,

and then he would pay them off in drugs.

>> NARRATOR: And jurors heard that Willingham

was a violent sociopath.

>> He was an individual with essentially no redeeming values.

This was his crowning achievement as a psychopath,

the murder of his three children.

>> NARRATOR: In fact, psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson

testified Willingham was a severe sociopath.

Grigson had testified in more than 100 death penalty cases,

earning the nickname "Dr. Death."

>> He's hired to come in

and make sure they get the death penalty

by assuring the jury that, you know,

this person would be just a...

you know, has to be removed from society.

>> NARRATOR: Gilbert discovered

that Grigson had never met Willingham,

but those who actually knew Todd

said he was hardly a violent criminal.

>> I just didn't see that person.

That's not the Todd I knew.

Todd had been arrested for tampering with an automobile.

In other words, he had opened the door of a vehicle

and not gotten any further.

By the time he'd opened the door,

the police were already on site.

>> I put him in jail, I think, on his 18th birthday

because he'd screwed up again.

And I said, "I have tried to save your ass,

"and now I'm going to put your ass in jail

"so you can't enjoy your 18th birthday.

You're going to go to jail for the weekend"

or whatever it was-- I don't remember the details.

He wasn't a sociopath, he wasn't a psychopath;

he did stupid crap like steal bikes.

>> NARRATOR: And in Todd's teenage love

of heavy metal music,

Gilbert found an explanation for those Satanic posters;

they were from the rock bands Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden.

(Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" playing)

>> We had posters of Iron Maiden hanging in our house, too.

My ex-husband probably still has

his Iron Maiden posters, you know, at 40.

He... they were Iron Maiden fans.

So what?

>> What they looked at were posters on the wall,

which are the typical posters that young men listen to,

the heavy metal;

that he smoked pot, you know;

that he had this horrible past of crime

which turned out to be shoplifting and a bicycle.

>> NARRATOR: Gilbert followed Todd's trail

from Oklahoma to Texas.

He'd moved to Corsicana to be with his girlfriend Stacy.

They'd met while she was still in high school

and before long had three children under the age of two.

>> He changed their diapers and took care of them

and did everything that they needed.

And he made them a lot of macaroni and cheese.

He did a lot of cooking for them.

>> NARRATOR: Stacy wound up waitressing in her brother's bar

while Todd stayed home with the kids.

>> I know they struggled that year,

trying to take care of three babies,

and it was very hard, you know.

I can't imagine.

>> I'd say to the girls, he was a real good dad,

but as far as going out and providing a nice home,

nice job for the family,

and being a family provider like you're supposed to,

I'd say he didn't.

>> NARRATOR: Todd and Stacy's relationship

deteriorated into abuse.

>> When you have three little kids

and you're stuck in the house always together

and your friends are out doing stuff,

I think that was part of Todd and Stacy's problem, you know?

Three little kids and you're poor

and you get bored and start picking at each other.

>> NARRATOR: Nevertheless, only three months before the fire,

Todd and Stacy decided to get married.

>> He told me, he said, "I'm going to try to do what's right.

"I'm going to try to make this work,

and we're going to get married."

And he said, "I know it's going to be hard,

but that's what I should do."

>> NARRATOR: Todd would have to change his ways;

he had a reputation as a ladies man.

>> Stacy wasn't the only girl in his life, I'm sorry to say.

Todd acted like he really cared for Stacy,

but he acted like he cared for other girls, too.

>> NARRATOR: There was one woman in particular.

>> She was an older woman that I didn't approve of at all.

She was a neighbor that lived across the street

and had children his age.

>> NARRATOR: When he married Stacy,

Todd ended the relationship.

>> When he come and he told me that he had married Stacy, it...

...it broke my heart because I knew I was losing

at that time, the love of my life, my soul mate.

And... but I knew why he was doing it,

and I could not ask him to walk away from his kids

because he couldn't do it.

I wouldn't do that to him

because I knew how much he loved them.

>> He had other choices, but he...

he chose his children.

>> NARRATOR: After the fire, Stacy stood by Todd,

insisting he was innocent.

But when he was sent to prison, she started a new life.

>> After the conviction and after Todd was on Death Row,

Stacy decided to get a divorce.

She didn't visit him on Death Row.

>> NARRATOR: Elizabeth Gilbert found Stacy in Corsicana.

>>They kept saying that the fire...

>> I told her I was a writer, I'm from Houston.

I interviewed her, I taped her, and she was very...

seemed kind of reserved, nervous.

Just a person who had a lot of tragedy in her life.

>> NARRATOR: Todd had begged Stacy to visit him,

but she refused.

>> NARRATOR: Nevertheless, Stacy said she didn't believe Todd

was capable of killing the children.

>> She really convinced me

that she felt that an injustice had been done.

My sense in the interview was, like,

she left me with the opinion that Todd was innocent

because she didn't feel that he had done this.

She didn't feel like he was capable of doing that.

>> NARRATOR: Now Gilbert wanted to sort out the other evidence.

>> I went up to Austin and got the records of the trial.

I'm in, you know, copying these records.

I'm reading these reports.

>> NARRATOR: She dug into the story

of that jailhouse informant.

>> A red flag to me was Johnny Webb.

The idea that a prisoner would confess to a complete stranger

that he had committed a crime just didn't...

I just didn't buy that.

>> NARRATOR: Webb had a reputation

as a troubled young man

with a long history of felony arrests.

>> We decided to use his testimony,

even though his credibility was subject to attack.

We felt that he had no real reason

to lie about this particular...

what we'd term a jailhouse confession.

>> NARRATOR: Gilbert decided to talk to Webb in person.

She found him serving 15 years.

He stood by his story.

>> He was a very nervous young man.

I wouldn't have... had I been sitting, you know, on the jury,

I couldn't have bought his testimony.

>> NARRATOR: Later, her suspicions about Webb

were confirmed when he sent this letter to prosecutors

recanting his testimony

and declaring Willingham's innocence.

And then he changed that story, recanting the recantation,

and now he doesn't remember any of it.

>> I don't remember.

Maybe I did.

Maybe it's because of everything I was going through,

I told them I was going to recant

if someone doesn't help me,

because they was trying to kill me.

You know what I'm saying?

Something to put some pressure on somebody to do something

to get me out of where I was at.

>> NARRATOR: As Willingham's execution date neared,

there were other problems Gilbert could not overcome.

She learned Willingham had lied to investigators

about his attempts to rescue the children.

>> I think the big secret that he was carrying was the guilt.

In his mind, he couldn't acknowledge

that he didn't, you know, try to save his children,

so he concocted the story that he, you know,

tried to go in and find the babies and couldn't.

>> And he said, "What I'm guilty of is being a coward."

He said, "I should have died in that house with the kids."

But he said, "It doesn't matter what people say,

"you can't let yourself catch on fire

without trying to get away."

And you can sit and say every day,

"I would burn up before I let my kids die in a fire,"

but he says, "It's not humanly possible."

>> NARRATOR: And the biggest challenge remained:

that evidence of arson.

Gilbert had never been able to get an arson expert

to examine the state's findings.

And then, just three months before the execution,

Gilbert was in an automobile accident.

Paralyzed, Gilbert could no longer visit Willingham.

>> You know, it was impossible for me to go.

I was incapable of that sort of travel, you know.

Sitting in a chair that long, driving to Huntsville,

it just wouldn't have happened.

>> NARRATOR: Gilbert's investigation was over.

>>Under the windows, the low burn...

>> NARRATOR: In the 12 years since Willingham's conviction,

one fact had remained unquestioned:

the fire was an arson.

>> Burn patterns unusual to a normal fire burn.

>> NARRATOR: But during those years,

there had been a dramatic change

in the science of arson investigation.

>> The fire investigation community

largely consists of people who are firemen.

They're not scientists,

they don't have any formal scientific training.

Extinguishing a fire and investigating a fire

involve two different skill sets and two different mindsets.

>> NARRATOR: John Lentini is at the top of his field,

one of a small group

who reinvented the science of arson detection.

>> So many determinations were based on hunches and feelings.

And... and these guys, they talk about,

"Oh, you got to get in there and feel the beast."

And I'm just embarrassed for their profession

that this is the way people evaluate physical evidence.

>> NARRATOR: The change in arson science began

when scientists set their own fires

and studied how they burned.

>> That was the first time

science was ever really introduced

into the mainstream of fire investigation.

>> NARRATOR: Like Lentini,

Dr. Gerald Hurst was one of the new fire scientists.

>> Gerald Hurst is a chemist extraordinaire

with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.

>> He's the idiosyncratic godfather

of modern arson science.

He's like this mad scientist who is not mad at all.

>> NARRATOR: For years,

Willingham's supporters had tried to enlist Hurst's help.

They finally gave him the state's arson report

only weeks before the scheduled execution.

>> Taking a look at the photographs

and video and testimony and fire investigation report,

it became apparent that we were dealing with a fire

which had gone to flashover.

>> NARRATOR: Flashover,

the instant ignition of all combustible material in a room.

>> Flashover had left natural patterns on the floor

that all post-flashover fires tend to leave behind,

and these had been misidentified as pour patterns.

And thus, the fire had been labeled an arson.

>> NARRATOR: Hurst reviewed the report line by line.

>> Here's your first bit of so-called arson evidence.

This was typically interpreted in the old days

as a pour pattern.

In other words, someone poured gasoline

or some other accelerant down the hallway,

out the front door and then ignited it.

The prosecutor in this case literally believed

that the burn patterns on the floor

were in the shape of a pentagram,

like some satanic ritual.

When you actually look at the burn pattern that they drew

and then you look at where the windows are,

windows furnish ventilation to a fire,

and all they were looking at

is what we call ventilation patterns.

>> NARRATOR: The original arson investigators had testified

that there was evidence of a liquid accelerant

on the threshold of the porch door.

>> A sample of wood debris from the base of the front porch

was analyzed

and the results were positive for a combustible liquid,

accelerant-kerosene.

Well, that's quite understandable

because the porch also had a barbecue on it,

and, of course, it would be charcoal lighter fluid there

if there was a can of charcoal lighter fluid on the porch.

>> NARRATOR: Hurst also addressed Willingham's

lack of injuries.

>> The question has been asked:

why were Todd Willingham's feet not burned?

And the answer to that question is quite simple:

because if no accelerant was poured on the floor,

the floor would have been relatively cool

until shortly after flashover occurred in the bedroom.

The last part of him that would have gotten any burn

would have been his feet.

>> NARRATOR: And Hurst concluded the original investigators

had not eliminated accidental causes.

>> There had to be at least one electrical short in that room,

and since it was surface wiring,

it would have been relative child's play to simply trace it.

Get a step ladder and trace it and go over it inch by inch

until you locate the fault.

That, in and of itself,

is enough to toss a case out for arson.

>> NARRATOR: Hurst had come to believe

Todd Willingham was not guilty.

>> Todd Willingham's case falls into that category

where there is not one iota of evidence

that the fire was arson.

Not one iota.

>> NARRATOR: Hurst completed his report on February 13, 2004,

only four days before the scheduled execution.

>> You know, all hope was lost, and we now have the answer.

Getting the news from Dr. Hurst was...

I mean, it was... it was definitely a high.

>> NARRATOR: Willingham's attorney

filed a series of emergency last minute appeals.

>> I thought that somebody would at least say,

"Let's stop and, you know,

let's at least hold on and let's take a look at it."

I mean, we were talking about somebody that was convicted

of something that wasn't a crime.

>> NARRATOR: While Willingham waited for the courts to decide,

he received shocking news: Stacy had told reporters

that she now believed he had murdered their children.

>> She told me that she had changed her mind

and felt that Todd was guilty.

>> NARRATOR: Stacy talked to Todd's private investigator,

Tina Church.

>> And she indicated that she had read the entire trial record

in one day.

And I kept trying to tell her, "Well, we have new evidence.

How would that make you feel to know that your former husband,

the father of your children, is going to be executed

for something he possibly didn't do?"

And she just really had convinced herself by this point

he was guilty.

>> NARRATOR: It all started a few weeks before

at a contentious meeting between Todd and Stacy.

For the first time in 12 years, she visited Todd in prison.

He asked her not to come to the execution,

and he had one last request.

>> He asked her if he could be buried by the children,

and she refused.

It seems like there was just a lot of hate

that came out in that interview.

>> NARRATOR: Then only one day before the execution,

prosecutors filed a stunning document with the courts:

an affidavit signed by Stacy's brother claiming that,

according to Stacy,

Willingham had allegedly confessed

during that final meeting at the prison.

It outraged Willingham.

He denied it and prepared to die.

>> He said, "They'll kill me and I'll go to heaven with my kids,

because I don't want to live this life without them."

And he said, "God knows.

God knows I didn't do this, and that's what matters."

>> NARRATOR: On February 17, the day of the execution,

all of Willingham's final appeals failed.

Despite the Hurst report,

the Texas courts and the United States Supreme Court

refused to delay the execution.

>> It was just, you know, the train had left the station

and nobody was going to stop it.

>> NARRATOR: And Texas Governor Rick Perry

would not use his authority to delay the execution for 30 days.

>> In Texas, you do not get elected

by granting stays of execution

to people like Cameron Todd Willingham.

You do not show any kind of mercy to criminals.

You are hard on criminals.

And that gets you elected in this state.

>> I was given the duty or task to call Mr. and Mrs. Willingham,

and it was one of the most really horrifying experiences

that I ever had to go through, to tell parents that their son,

even though had been proven innocent, was going to die.

>> NARRATOR: At 6:00, Cameron Todd Willingham

was told that his time was up.

>> When he was asked by the warden

if he had anything to say,

then he went into the statement where...

that he said he had been wrongly convicted

and that he was innocent.

>> At some point, he looked over

and into the state's witness room, he noticed Stacy.

>> She walked up to the window,

and he says, "[Bleep] you, bitch."

>> I believe that he felt in his heart that she had lied,

and her lie had cost, you know...

helped cost him his life.

>> Not only did he tell his wife

that he hoped she would rot in hell,

he said that he hoped that she would [bleep] rot in hell.

I'd heard a lot of things

over covering hundreds of these executions in Texas

over the years, I'd never run into that.

Then the drugs began to be administered,

and within a few moments, he had been...

he was unconscious,

and then a few moments later was pronounced dead.

>> They told us that we could go to the funeral home

when the state turned his body over to the funeral home

and touch him while he was still warm,

so that's what we did.

>> And after I knew it was over, I went home to my kids

and never been so glad to see them in my life.

And I knew Todd was with his.

He finally went home to his.

>>Did the state which executes more convicts than any other

execute an innocent man?

>> Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Explosive new charges over the execution of a man

who at least half a dozen forensic experts

now believe was innocent.

>> NARRATOR: In death, questions about Willingham's innocence

would not go away.

By 2008, the controversy had ended up

in a small state agency.

>> The Texas Forensic Science Commission was designed to go in

and figure out what happened

and figure out how to keep it from happening again.

>> We decided that we needed to hire an expert

in the area of fire science

to look at all of the data we could get pulled together

and give us a report.

>> NARRATOR: The commission hired fire scientist

Dr. Craig Beyler to investigate the Willingham case.

Beyler agreed with other experts

that there was no evidence of arson.

>> The Beyler report is point for point

a confirmation of the original Hurst report,

that all 20 of the indicators were wrong.

>> NARRATOR: To the top fire scientists in the country,

the implications were clear.

>> The state of Texas executed a man

for a crime that they couldn't prove was really a crime,

and the evidence says, "This was an accidental fire."

And if it was an accidental fire,

it doesn't matter how many posters of Iron Maiden

Cameron Todd Willingham had on his wall,

or Led Zeppelin,

or whether he liked to play darts or drink beer,

or whether he smacked his wife around;

it only matters that the fire was not really a set fire.

>> NARRATOR: Texas Governor Rick Perry

was running for reelection.

>> I knew from the beginning that it could be controversial

simply because we had a person who had been executed,

and the science used in his case might be questionable.

And the implications are obvious.

It doesn't take long to connect the dots there.

>> NARRATOR: Just before the Beyler report

was to be presented,

the Governor fired the commission's chairman.

>> Around 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., I received a call

from Doris Scott of the Governor's office.

She said, "I just wanted to let you know

"that the Governor thanks you

for your service on the commission."

And I said, "Okay, well, thank you for calling."

>> This is a guy on his... on... in the death chamber.

His last breath, he spews an obscenity-laced triad

against his wife.

That's the person that we're talking about here.

And getting all tied up in the process here

is, frankly, a deflection

of what people across this state and this country

need to be looking at.

This was a bad man.

>> NARRATOR: In all, Perry fired three members of the commission.

Then he installed a political ally,

prosecutor John Bradley, as the new chairman.

>> It wasn't until Rick Perry stepped in

and replaced three members of the commission--

and within days, the story had grown nationwide--

that it got to be a big story.

>> NARRATOR: Willingham's case is now at the heart

of the national debate about the death penalty.

>>Thank you for making this Todd's day.

>> Well, I think the implications

for capital punishment are there,

but the implications for non-capital cases

are there, too.

And that is, if we make a mistake,

are we going to learn from it?

Or are we going to try to sweep it under the rug

and act like nothing happened?

>> I can guarantee you we've got at least a couple hundred people

in prison in this state alone for accidental fire,

and we need to get them out.

>> NARRATOR: But in Corsicana,

they made up their minds a long time ago.

>> I believe that Todd Willingham

got exactly what he deserved the day they put him to death.

And I don't believe that he didn't get a fair trial

in this town, and I don't...

It's really a shame we couldn't put him to death three times

since he took three lives.

>>Unusual to a normal fire burn...

>> NARRATOR: And the original arson investigators

still insist Willingham set the fire.

>> I don't care how many degrees you may have,

how many books you may have written,

this was a set fire.

We had a jury of 12 people that convicted a man

who was later executed.

Was Mr. Willingham innocent?

In my opinion, he was guilty as the day he was born.

>> NARRATOR: This year, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham

is back in the news.

A new controversy erupted

over the key testimony from Johnny Webb--

that jailhouse informant

who testified about Willingham's alleged confession.

>> That was one of the two pillars

that sent Todd Willingham to the Gurney.

>> NARRATOR: Last month, Webb agreed to a new interview:

this one recanting his testimony.

>> Willingham never, ever, not once told me

that he killed his family.

He never said that.

I was told to say that.

You know, I'm sorry I lied about it.

I wish I could change that.

I can't.

>> NARRATOR: Webb accuses the prosecutor, John Jackson,

of making a deal in exchange for his testimony.

At the time, Webb was himself facing charges

in a robbery case.

>> And he says, "So they made me promises.

"Promised that I would get taken care of.

That they would get me out early."

>> NARRATOR: And documents recently uncovered

by the Innocence Project, a legal advocacy group,

seem to support Webb's story.

>> You can't believe Johnny Webb just on his word.

But when the documents corroborate what he's saying,

that is when there's truth to the matter.

>> NARRATOR: Among the documents,

evidence that prosecutor Jackson assisted Webb

in the years after the trial.

>> We start to see what really can best be described

as a full court press from John Jackson

to get Johnny Webb out of prison.

>> NARRATOR: The Innocence Project

has filed a formal complaint against Jackson,

and Jackson has filed a lengthy response

with affidavits from witnesses disputing Webb's story.

Jackson insists there was no deal,

but does admit giving Webb "extraordinary assistance,"

claiming he had an obligation to protect a witness

from threats in prison.

Jackson declined a request for a new interview.

The Texas State Bar is reviewing the matter.

>>Visit pbs.org/frontline

for more about the new revelations

from jailhouse informant Johnny Webb.

>> I was told to say that.

>>Excerpts from the key documents in the case,

and extended interviews from the program.

>> So-called arson evidence.

>> The murder of his three children.

>>Then connect to the Frontline community.

Check us out on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter,

and pbs.org/frontline.

Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH

access.wgbh.org

>>For more on this and other Frontlineprograms,

visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.

Frontline's"Death by Fire 2" is available on DVD.

To order, visit shoppbs.org or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

Frontlineis also available for download on iTunes.

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